Claiming Our Voice. Directed by Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel. New York, NY: Fine Grain Films, 2013. 21minutes.
Working Women of the World. Directed by Marie France Collard. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films 2000. 53 minutes.
Xmas without China. Directed by Alicia Dwyer. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. 63 minutes.
Claiming Our Voice (2013) relates the stories of immigrant domestic workers from South Asia in New York City. The film was funded by several New York City–based organizations including the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. It is directed and produced by Sri Lankan American photographer and filmmaker Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel. Located in Queens, it follows the support organization Andolan, whose members—mostly from India and Bangladesh—prepare for their first theatrical performance to express their experiences of domestic work that involve subjugation and exploitation, as well as sexual and other forms of abuse. The artistic performance is a tool that, together with meetings and storytelling, is geared to empower the women to resist and hopefully change the situations in which they find themselves. Titled Sukh aur Dukh ki Kahani (Stories of joy and sorrow), the performance mixes women’s personal stories with music and song and with personal and political messages of resistance and support. Voices and dance moves of workers add an expressive dimension to the plight of disenfranchised workers of the world. As they note, 99 percent of domestic workers in the United States are foreign born and most of them are women. Consequently, they share various forms of structural violence that link migration with poverty and gender and ethnic forms of discrimination. Women find themselves accepting low wages with little recourse, since employers take advantage of a form of labor that is isolating and does not allow workers to access legal protections. This short film, in English, Bangla, and Hindi with English subtitles, draws attention to a population that is pervasive in New York and the United States, but also hidden from view, as they constitute an important but secretive part of the private and domestic lives of the wealthy. The documentary film offers a perspective of globalization not always seen, even in the labor literature, where domestic workers are removed from public awareness due to their particular position in caring economy.1 It is difficult to conduct research with domestic workers. They spend most of their lives at the workplace and employers often expect/demand privacy and confidentiality. As a result, it is not a very well-studied employment form.
By contrast, Working Women of the World (2000), directed by Marie France Collard, in French with subtitles, focuses on the earlier phases of the outsourcing project to Asia as a result of neoliberal policies, export promotion, and increased labor flexibilization in globalization. The film focuses on the Levi Corporation and their movement around the world in search of places with lower wages, little or no regulation, and corporate incentives in the form of reduced or no taxation. At the same time, we see the plight of European workers in Belgium, producing Levi's garments as they first learn of the closing and eventual relocation of their factories to Turkey, then Indonesia, and then the Philippines. The film is unique in that it does not just tell the story of third world workers, but it also shows the frustration of Europeans who find themselves without jobs they had relied on their entire lives. With globalization and new labor logics, the promise of the secure job is betrayed by the mobility of the industry, profit calculation, and state deregulation.
The issues portrayed in the film occur in the intermediate stages of a process of deindustrialization in the West that was first apparent in the 1970s. The human cost is high and lasting. The lives of third world women, mostly poor and of diverse ethnicities, are linked to the lives of white, lower-middle-class women in the West with varied outcomes. For example, as jobs move from developed to poorer nations around the world, they place workers in unfair competition with each other, and the opening of a new factory may help some women in one corner of the world and cause great stress in another. Globalization processes at once integrate the economy in contradictory and inconsistent forms and mostly in ways that benefit transnational elites over the most vulnerable populations. Industries bring with them resources, hopes, and expectations to new areas of the world but rarely deliver the imagined benefits of the new forms of labor. This is a good film that offers a vibrant view of the process, even when much of what it shows is now standard discussion in classrooms and workplaces throughout the West. Nevertheless, it is a clear representation of the outsourcing strategy and its impact throughout the world.
Xmas without China (2013) depicts the dilemma of the Jones family in Arcadia, California, a city where many Chinese migrants have settled, when faced with the condition of living through a Christmas season without products made in China.2 The Jonses agree to participate in a “Christmas without China” experiment in which they eliminate all products made in China from their household. They do so due to their wish to purchase and support U.S.-made goods but find themselves deprived of so much as a result that they struggle to complete this experiment, barely complying with the commitment they had made. The film is a practical and humorous demonstration of interdependence in the global economy, showing how these products are less expensive (through cheaper labor) and are pervasive in the lives of Americans. However, it does not mention the workers who produce the thousands of items we purchase in the United States and around the world, so those watching this film should be reminded of the labor dynamics that constitute the essential backdrop of cheap products circulating throughout the world.3 Middle-class Americans can afford many toys and Christmas lights because of the hard labor and low wages workers around the world find themselves forced to accept.
The Chinese-born producer and featured character, Tom Xia, also struggles in Xmas without China, but he grapples with his own position in this suburban community with a large Chinese migrant population that is viewed ambivalently by others who live there. He has resided in Arcadia since a very young age and finds himself frustrated by what he perceives as a mischaracterization of his native China and disdain for Chinese-made products at a time when some such products had been recalled for excessive lead content. He feels allegiance both to China, where he still has family he loves, and to the United States where he grew up. In the midst of these personal and community tensions, he seeks to show how dependent we are on Chinese industrial expanse.
The three films reviewed here complement each other in various ways and, pieced together, allow for a discussion of globalization processes focusing on production of inexpensive products, circulation in the global economy, and the plight of international workers.
1 Some useful readings on domestic labor and migration are Janet Henshall Momsen, ed., Gender, Migration, and Domestic Service (New York: Routledge, 1999); Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, The Force of Domesticity: Filipina Migrants and Globalization (New York: NYU Press, 2008); Meryl Altman and Kerry Pannell, “Policy Gaps and Theory Gaps: Women and Migrant Domestic Labor,” Feminist Economics 18, no. 2 (2012): 291-315; Isabel Pla-Julián, “Addressing Informality, Gender, and Ethnicity in Domestic Labour,” Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research 20, no. 4 (2014): 559-75.
2 Xmas without China is distributed by Bullfrog Films.
3 See, e.g., Mary Elizabeth Gallagher, Contagious Capitalism: Globalization and the Politics of Labor in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Liliana Goldín, “Labor Turnover among Maquila Workers of Highland Guatemala: Resistance and Semiproletarianization in Global Capitalism,” Latin American Research Review 46, no. 3 (2011): 133-56; Liliana Goldín, “Maquila Age Maya: Changing Households and Communities of the Central Highlands of Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 6, no. 1 (2001): 30-57; Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines Markets, Power, and the Politics of World Trade (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005); Edward Webster, Rob Lambert, and Andries Bezuidenhout, eds., Grounding Globalization: Labour in the Age of Insecurity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).