Thomas Balmés’s fly-on-the-wall documentary uses your cell phone charger as a case study in how multibillion-dollar multinationals are dealing with multihorrible working conditions in the overseas plants run by their subcontractors. From Nokia’s HQ in Finland, we’re catapulted to the Chinese special economic zone of Shenzhen, where an earnest ethical manager and a consultant-for-hire undertake Nokia’s first ever “ethical suppliers’ assessment” to satisfy their investors. They’re guided though the factories by Richard, a cynical British mid-level manager with the jovial mien of a sober soccer hooligan; his jokes become increasingly bitter once the factory begins to leak violations like an oil tanker that’s hit an iceberg.
As in your typical Chinese factory, conditions are substandard and many workers earn about enough a month to download a P. Diddy ringtone (the underlying problem, indentured servitude, is never discussed). Balmés focuses on the forced implementation of corporate responsibility. The subtext is sexual: Not only are these female consultants (one with a major holier-than-thou attitude) telling these guys (Western and Chinese) how to run their plant ethically while remaining competitive, a large percentage of the workers are Chinese girls who will be forced to have abortions if they’re discovered to be pregnant. Balmés frames his film by quoting Milton Friedman—”the one and only social responsibility of business is to make profits”—and A Decent Factory is just as much about the motives of the people asking the questions as those of the people avoiding the answers. Though the weight remains on the side of the interrogators, don’t be too sure Balmés hasn’t uncovered this century’s latest twist on exploitation: ethical colonialism.