China Blue

I went to the Amnesty screening of China Blue tonight. It’s a really good film. It tells a moving human story, and shows a complex reality that demands a deeper response than “boycott Chinese clothing” or “Write to [insert Western chain-store or brand name here] and insist they don’t allow this”.

Yes, I felt sorry for Jasmine and the other girls – far from home, overworked and exploited – but I also envied them their youth, optimism, sweet natures, industriousness, and the friendships they formed. And the reality is – as appalling as we find their working conditions – they are a step up from the rural poverty of their home villages; the factory jobs are seen as a way to a better life.

The dynamic of the workplace reminded me so much of the flower nursery I used to work at – the way Big Capital squeezes small capital, which squeezes the workers – and all the personality types, responses and self-justifications down the chain. The scale of exploitation shown is much greater, but the underlying dynamic is the same. It’s capitalism.

During the movie, Jasmine repeatedly expresses her amazement at the size of the jeans she’s helping to make, and curiosity about all these ‘big, tall, fat people’ who are going to wear them. The Chinese are just trying to get their share of the pie that has grown those giant people – and why shouldn’t they?

Sadly, the planet can’t provide that much for all of us. We need to learn how to play fairly and share our toys. We need an alternative to capitalism, and a significant minority of us (the global rich ) need to live much more modestly.

I’ve been trying to imagine tonight what that might mean, how it could work, and the only answer I can think of is Fair Trade – not just as a boutique international trade activity helping a few lucky ones (and satisfying the refined moral palette of prosperous Western liberals?) – but as the basis of all trade and business between everybody, everywhere.

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