Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
CAPITALISM: No justice in a world where Third World workers are as disposable as the cheap garments they make.

Such stories come and go from the media’s 24/7 news feed  – a fire or collapsed building somewhere in the Third World crushes, burns, maims, and kills a few dozen or more anonymous poor brown Muslim (or Hindu or some other religion) people. All of them indirectly employed by a rich and powerful Western corporation.

The disasters hog the headlines for a few days and then are gone, forgotten in the relentless grind of non-information that passes for news these days.

Behind the headlines

Christopher Patz and Ammar Aziz get behind the headlines and get down low and dirty with the grieving families who have lost children, partners, bread-winners and are fighting – in this case with the backing of the ILO, (the International Labor Organisation, the UN agency for creating decent working conditions the world over) – for compensation and better conditions.

Discount Workers is a grinding tale of poverty and injustice that feels longer than its just over one hour span. Perhaps that is to do with both the grim subject and the plodding nature of international legal cases.

Opening with images of the sweatshop conditions of the rag trade in Pakistan – although these sparse Dickensian workshops could be anywhere in the Indian subcontinent – the film swiftly moves to follow the struggle of the one of the dead machinists family for compensation for their son’s loss, and the loss of many other families.

Discount Workers-documentary-post1
Discount Workers, a film by Ammar Aziz & Christopher Patz

Chaos and filth

The chaos and filth of the sweatshops is little different from the chaos and filth of the dusty streets of Karachi, where plastic rubbish and streets choked with smoke-belching buses merge in a mix of poverty and exhaustion.

The struggle just to get a lawyer along to a local courthouse, where mountains of dusty files are stacked on desks in a building that looks as a much of a fire-trap as the fateful garment factory, signals the start of a struggle that takes 6 years before the family is able to bring its case to the German courts.

But first, the filmmakers and campaigners for reparations stop outside an outlet of KIK, the German company that had its cheap throw-away fashion items run manufactured in the Karachi factory.

Customer is king

KIK stands for «Kunde ist König» – German for Customer is King. Despite an initial court ruling that employees of a far-away supplier should also be valued and compensation paid to the families of the dead and injured, KIK drags its heels over paying out any money.

Outside a German branch of the company, Germany’s biggest fashion discounter with a chain of more than 3,500 stores in Germany and across central Europe, the mother of one young worker who died in the fire in interviewed by a group of television crews and reporters. She is dignified and angry. No one from KIK appears, either here or in the film at all. The directors don’t explain this absence – perhaps the company refused to appear. An explanation at some point would be useful.

The disasters hog the headlines for a few days and then are gone, forgotten in the relentless grind of non-information that passes for news these days.

Back in Karachi, the campaigning continues with the backing of left-wing trade union demonstrations, complete with workers hoisting placards of Marx and Engels aloft.

There are brief excerpts from the testimony of those that survived the fire and a heart-wrenching grainy video shot on a mobile phone in the workshop that burned in happier days when a group of workers jokes about not knowing whether they would «be here tomorrow».

Finally, the story winds its tortuous way to a German civil court, tasked with determining whether the case can be taken further. No surprises here. The grieving mother is not even asked to give a statement and the dusty German judges dismiss the case on procedural grounds – the six years it has taken the determined families to get this far is deemed too long.

Fixed

The filmmakers see the court decision as a fix (although lawyers had assured the Pakistani family that courts in Germany are free of political influence).

the six years it has taken the determined families to get this far is deemed too long.

In closing on-screen statements the directors state: «In January 2019 the German court dismissed the case….KIK argued it was not responsible for the lack of factory fire safety, because it was merely the paying customer. The counterargument…was that because of KIK’s effective control, power and influence over the factory, it was more like the paying boss, and therefore responsible for the factory conditions.»

They add: «By deciding to dismiss the case on procedural grounds, the German court avoided answering important questions around the corporate responsibility and liability of European companies in global supply chains.»

«Customer is King?»

‘Discount Workers’ screens at 2020 One World Prague

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