Why are those wonderful toys and clothes stamped ‘Made in China’ so delightfully cheap? Haolun Shu’s documentary Struggle explains why, in unsettling detail. He gets inside the secretive world of the ‘Special Economic Zone’ in Shenzhen, and shows what happens when machine meets flesh.
Migrant worker Chi Qi’s career came to an abrupt end when his hand was pulverized. He bears no grudge against the man who was operating the punch machine that severed his hand: they’d both been working seven-day weeks, 7am to 11.30pm shifts, with meal breaks cancelled. As Qi staggered away from his machine, blood gushing, his manager’s first response was ‘Don’t scream!’ At the hospital, the boss refused to pay the cost of surgery that would have saved his hand, so he ordered amputation. He then sacked Qi and locked him in the factory dorm. It was only by virtue of a smuggled letter and a cunning labour lawyer who arrived at the factory with a local TV crew in tow that Qi managed to escape.
Zhou Litai, a self-taught bricklayer-turned-labour-lawyer, is the lynchpin of this film. He champions cases like Qi’s, but not only in the courtroom: he currently has forty injured workers sleeping on the floor of his house while their industrial injury compensation cases drag on. They have nowhere else to go. Ten thousand workers lose body parts in Shenzhen’s sweatshops every year. Zhou Litai is a sort of miracle-worker, but he knows he’s only scratching the surface of the problem.
It’s an outrageous and depressing story of the human cost of globalisation, but Haolun Shu tells it with grace and unsentimental respect for the dignity and survival instincts of those who have paid with their own flesh for the avarice of Chinese factory managers and the transnationals who contract them. Satisfyingly, the film takes us through to the resolution of the cases it features, and follows the bittersweet story of what happens to the workers afterwards. Shu makes judicious use of slo-mo’s, split-screen, stop-frame and reconstructions to create a telling visual counterpoint to the workers’ testimonies at the heart of his film. Without letting filmic tricks overshadow or distract from the story, his style enriches our sense of opening a door to an unknown world. Despite the miles between us, we are linked to workers like Qi: it was his lost hand that paid for our low-priced Chinese imports. As a European viewer of this Chinese documentary, I’d say Struggle should be screened at the entrance of every shopping centre selling dirt cheap goods from China’s sweatshops.