Fascinating case study of the moral quagmire of globalism, Thomas Balmes’ docu, “A Decent Factory,” follows one company’s effort to balance ethics and profits. A team of two investigators from Finland’s Nokia sallies forth into China to discover whether the outsourced factories that manufacture its phones there — owned by Germans and run by English managers — are in compliance with local labor laws. Deadpan, subtle film trades on many levels of discrepancy, chief among them the gap between what audiences are led to expect and what they find. “Decent,” which opened at Gotham’s Film Forum on June 29, could venture further afield.
Due to increasing pressure from investors and the general public, Finnish Nokia wants to insure that its image stays “clean” in regard to its outsourced manufacturing. At a company meeting, one brave soul actually asks aloud what now must be the $64 million question — does Nokia truly want to commit itself to improving conditions in its outsourced factories or merely to protect its image?
Not too surprisingly, the question, never answered, is tacitly delayed until the full extent of the problem is revealed.
Hanna Kaskinen, Nokia’s resident environmental/ethical expert, and Louise Jamison, an English ethics consultant hired by Nokia, swap war stories, anticipating the difficulties they may encounter at factories in China, including double, even triple sets of books and hidden child labor.
By the time they arrive in China, docu viewers are primed to witness untold horrors. Instead, the fairly modern factory comes across as well-maintained, as do the adjacent dormitories where 99 percent of the largely female young workers reside.
Intensive inspection unearths both blatant no-nos (no signed contracts, toxic cleaning materials stored in open containers right next to drinking water) and more complex infractions (imaginative accounting disguising the fact that workers earn less than minimum wage, involuntary overtime, room and board automatically docked from paychecks).
Bent over circuit boards, the girls align teensy-weensy parts without the aid of magnifying mirrors routinely installed for such detailed close work. The casually mentioned 26-day month used to calculate earnings translates into six-day work weeks of 12-hour shifts.
No food is allowed in the cramped, monitored dormitories, where groups of eight employees each are stacked in smallish rooms equipped with single hole-in-the-floor toilets.
While English top execs adopt a straightforward, supposedly disarming admission of shortcomings, Chinese middle-management tends toward overt repression (demanding to oversee worker interviews) and backpedaling cover-ups (the camera recording frantically whispered, later subtitled, exchanges in Chinese). Told to solve the problem of toxic materials near the drinking water, one manager orders them removed to the kitchen.
Yet the factory, as the investigators continually assure local management, is better than most. Even interviews with workers themselves yield comparatively minor complaints about harsh forewomen and poor food. As the docu progresses, the truth sinks in that this isolated, regimented, soulless environment is as “decent” as the global workplace is ever likely to get.