Why Chinese ‘rescues’ of western factories can turn sour for workers | Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Our film American Factory shows the damaging effect of reverse globalisation. British Steel should take heed

For Jill Lamantia, driving a forklift was the easy part of a hard life. Like countless other industrial workers in our hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Lamantia was excited that Fuyao Glass – a major Chinese company – had bought and reopened our abandoned General Motors factory. She had a job again.

In her new role, after clocking off at the end of each shift, Lamantia retreated to a small brick house. Clutching spare keys, she would shut the front door and descend the stairs, squeezing past cleaning products on a mop rack. This Midwestern grandmother and former homeowner was living in her sister’s basement. Fuyao is the world’s leading automotive glassmaker. Based in China’s Fujian province, the company surprised many by exporting Chinese jobs to, of all places, America. In 2014 its billionaire founder, chairman and owner, Cao Dewang, saw the symbolic power in buying the gutted GM factory and rehiring scores of former employees such as Lamantia to make glass for the windscreens of motor vehicles manufactured in the US.

One way this reverse globalisation could work, the chairman thought, was if the American factory workers took home less than half of the old GM wages. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Daytonians were so desperate for jobs that they eagerly applied. Starting pay between 2014 and 2016 was $12 (£9.30) an hour. They thought this would soon rise rapidly.

In our film American Factory we documented their hopes and the reality, charting the fortunes of the company and the workforce over three years.

In the UK, where Chinese conglomerate Jingye has bid to buy British Steel, parallels can surely be drawn. GM’s future once seemed uncertain – after it declared bankruptcy and procured a government bailout – as British Steel’s future does now. Some believe that Jingye could save thousands of jobs. Others have nonetheless invoked American Factory as a cautionary tale of culture clash. Jingye has the benefit of taking over an operational factory with an existing workforce, while Fuyao acquired an empty shell. Still, it is unlikely that every job at British Steel will be saved. And salary cuts should be expected.

We are not experts in labour law or foreign policy. We are citizens with cameras, who happen to be longtime residents of the community shaped by GM and Fuyao. From 2008, we chronicled the arc of loss, uncertainty and hope experienced at this facility. The result has been two films, beginning with The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. For American Factory, Cao gave us generous access, letting us film unsupervised throughout Fuyao’s 130,000 sq m (1.4m sq ft) Ohio factory. We also accompanied a US delegation on a trip to Fuyao’s headquarters in Fuqing, Fujian province.

While we certainly cannot forecast the fate of British Steel – the sale is still pending, and the terms have not been publicised – our experience in a western factory under Chinese management, with American and Chinese workers seeking mutual understanding, may offer a valuable perspective regarding wages, health and safety, unionisation and cultural distinctions.

There was a time when working people in western, industrialised countries could get jobs that – in exchange for their skills and sweat and muscle – afforded them a decent middle-class life. Those jobs paid enough for families to send their kids to college; to buy them musical instruments, swimming lessons, braces. American Factory shows that those days are over.

A scene from American Factory.
A scene from American Factory. Photograph: Netflix/NETFLIX

Blue-collar people in China and western countries are on opposing trajectories. Prospects for Chinese workers have risen steeply, while employees in British and US factories have endured successive losses in income and financial security. These realities manifest in differing levels of acceptance about hard work for low pay.

In China, a normal working week can include six or seven 12-hour days. Few may enjoy the rigorous schedule, but adhering becomes easier when everyone else is willing to work just as hard. Completing tasks with speedy efficiency is on some level a national duty, part of building their country. Americans in our film bristled at the idea of working such long and frequent shifts, especially when earning a fraction of their past wages. Their resistance was not only backed by US labour laws, but also rooted in dignity and pride.

We were proud of the US workers who stood up for themselves at Fuyao. Lamantia refused to endanger the safety of her co-workers when ordered to lift a load she felt was too heavy for her forklift. She eventually joined her fellow workers in pushing for a labour union, aware they would likely be targeted and stripped of their jobs (Lamantia was fired, and later received a settlement from Fuyao after filing a claim with the National Labor Relations Board). It shouldn’t be so tough for people to defend what’s right, but it’s become that way.

Expecting British and American industrial workers to be as competitive as the Chinese is unreasonable. Parents who work in western factories know that their children’s futures will be more precarious than the lives they knew. The most time-tested, statistically proven path for workers to reach a steady middle-class life is through union membership. Worker cooperatives, employee-owned businesses and employee-stock ownership programmes show additional promise, as they all provide some optimism to counter the bleak, established narratives.

Since our film opened in August, we’ve found ourselves thinking more than ever about the future of work. Working people are under increasing productivity pressures, and wages are suppressed around the world, even as billionaires proliferate and stock markets roar. The workers at British Steel would be wise to question how many of their jobs can be automated under Jingye.

There are organisations that have helped bring Chinese factory positions to the west without sacrificing worker integrity. Since 2013, the nonprofit Jobs to Move America has created more than 2,500 positions around the country, at times prioritising women, people of colour, veterans and former prisoners. By working closely with transport authorities in Chicago and Boston it has helped China Railroad Stock Corporation win more than $2bn in contracts to build local manufacturing plants.

BYD – a Chinese bus manufacturer that now has a factory in California – was once hostile toward a possible employee union. Yet Jobs to Move America and other community groups convinced BYD to sign a neutrality agreement – a commitment on the part of an employer to not fight its employees’ efforts to organise themselves into a union.

The chasm of global income inequality is greater than ever, and we must fight for better lives for industrial workers wherever they are – whether they be in the US, the UK, China or anywhere.

• Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar are the directors of American Factory, available on Netflix

Contributors

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

The GuardianTramp

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