‘The Town Taking on China’ or the race to the bottom?

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The Town Taking on China, a two-part BBC2 documentary which aired this month (available on iPlayer), asks whether Britain’s manufacturing industry can compete with its rival in the Far East. The programme follows soft furnishing magnate Tony Caldeira and his employees as the cushion manufacturing firm which takes his name weighs up the economic merits of bringing jobs back to the Merseyside town of Kirkby from the factory it set up in China eight years ago.

Factory workers discuss wages and capitalist competition. © BBCThe story is told essentially from the boss’ perspective, but extensive footage of life on the factory floor and interviews with Caldeira’s employees illustrate the tough working conditions in both East and West, and the attitudes of workers to the hardship they suffer as a consequence of global competition.

The film shows how every last drop of productivity is squeezed from the workers, and every last penny of their wages counted out to them, in order that the firm can profit. The British workers get the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour. Those who work on the sewing floor can earn more, with experienced machinists doubling their pay packet if they work fast enough. Some of the machinists nurse bruises from where they’ve banged into tables on the cramped work floor, while another has sore fingers where the skin has worn off from all the sewing. The pace of work is relentless and some of the staff are on casual contracts, leaving them with no job security.

Extra orders mean staff must work faster than ever. © BBCEven with jobs scarce as they are, Caldeira has trouble retaining the staff he has hired on minimum wage. Gary works as a packer on a casual contract but, fearing he will be out the door when the Christmas rush finishes, he manages to find a slightly better paid, permanent job elsewhere and quits after four and a half weeks. “We’re disposable,” says Gary’s brother, who worked alongside him in the factory. In his search for employees who will be more likely to stick it out despite the poor conditions, Caldeira decides to try recruiting from the long-term unemployed — demonstrating the role of unemployment in suppressing wages and conditions for those in work.

You won’t hear this in the BBC documentary, but Caldeira Ltd’s most recent set of accounts shows the company made a healthy pre-tax profit of £1m on a turnover of £5.5m in 2010. If that money had been redistributed equally to each of the firm’s 42 UK employees, they would stand to gain just short of £24,000 each for the year on top of their salary. That’s to say nothing of the profits extracted further up the chain by distributors and retailers, who sell the finished product to consumers at a considerable markup.

Two British workers visit their Chinese counterpart, who earns £1 an hour. © BBCIn the second episode, Caldeira takes sewing machinists Joanne and Sharon on a trip to China to see his factory in Huzhou. Perhaps counterintuitively, the pace of work here is slower, but the Chinese workers more than make up for it with long hours and the fact that they live in tiny dorm rooms on the factory site, hundreds of miles away from their families, earning £1 an hour. Joanne and Sharon visit their counterpart Zhong in her dorm. Zhong lives there with her husband, away from their two young children, who are being brought up by their grandparents back home, where wages are even lower. They send money home to pay for their children, visiting just once a year.

Scenes like this show the human cost of capitalism’s race to the bottom, but the narrative of the documentary takes the logic of competition for granted. “In a race between the two countries,” asks the voiceover in a tone that makes it sound like a school sports day, “which will come out faster, cheaper and better than the other?”

For Tony Caldeira’s part, the business he now runs was started by his mum in the back of the family home, with money she scraped together by pawning her jewellery. But he is a capitalist no less ruthless for his humble origins. “It’s probably like Lancashire was in the 18th, 19th century,” he says mournfully, gazing out the window of a taxi at the textile factories of Hangzhou Bay. We’re told it’s the new workshop of the world, but it’s hard not to think of dark satanic mills.

In the end, the programme’s hypothesis turns out to be at least partly true. The quality of the Chinese factory’s output does not match that of Kirkby, and when exchange rates, taxes, shipping costs and rising wages in China are factored in, the bottom line is that Caldeira now makes only a marginal saving by moving jobs overseas, and he expects that saving to evaporate completely in the next few years. Tony Caldeira assembles his staff to tell them the good news. Buoyed by a massive order from a US retailer, Caldeira is reinvesting in Kirkby, and thanks to the stoic efforts of his machinists, jobs are returning to the British factory from China. One of the old-timers is on sufficiently good terms with the boss to be able to make a tongue-in-cheek enquiry about when they’re getting a pay rise. Caldeira plays along, covering his face with his hands in mock despair. But it’s obvious she’s touched a nerve, and one can only hope that next time the Caldeira workers demand better wages, they aren’t joking.

The Town Taking on China is available on BBC iPlayer (Episode 1, Episode 2) until midnight Wednesday.

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