'The Last Train Home': Documenting China's Race to the Bottom

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Every year China's port cities erupt in chaos as 130 million migrant factory workers scramble to make their yearly pilgrimage home for the New Year.  This astonishing spectacle, the largest human migration in the history of the world, is captured in heart rending detail in the new documentary, The Last Train Home. The film is a shocking portrayal of a country casting tradition and humanity aside in a free fall toward global economic primacy. As the film makes clear, the cost of this ascendancy is more than we can imagine.

The Last Train Home focuses on one couple, the Zhangs, peasants who leave their farm and two small children for factory work in a city over a thousand miles to the east. Their days and evenings are spent  hunched over sewing machines stitching garments for the American market.  Each night they scrub their clothes and feet in a bucket and escape to a narrow cot in a dormitory, drawing a thin curtain for privacy.   The only hope in their otherwise hopeless lives is that their paltry wages will someday buy their own children a better life. But as the film unfolds, we see the horrifying irony of their lovely and lively daughter Qin growing into bitter adolescence, quitting school, and boarding a train for her own frightening ride east to the factory.  

Laborers like the Zhangs provide us with cheap t-shirts, jeans, tube socks and Christmas tree ornaments, but we are fooling ourselves if we think their thankless labor is bringing them prosperity.  Rather than "flatten" the world and spread opportunity, as some suggest, modern globalization has made the world increasingly lumpy: Income disparity is on the rise all over the world. Unlike factory workers laboring in, say, 19th century New England mill towns, Chinese peasants who migrate thousands of miles from their home villages to make cheap stuff for Americans stand only a modest chance of improving their own lives or those of their children, while taking a substantial risk of losing any semblance of control over their futures. 

Roughly 25 percent of the global workforce is Chinese. Given such enormous firepower, China inevitably sets the norm for wages and working standards in the global supply chain. Multi-national corporate interests have chipped away at those standards and wages in order to maximize profits and serve shareholders.  The chronic disregard for workers' rights in China's foreign-invested sector threatens wages and working conditions around the globe, so it really should be no surprise that ninety percent of Americans have since the 1970s suffered economic slippage--in wages, benefits, job security. 

Americans love a bargain, but sometimes what looks like a bargain is really just a bad loan.  The on-going economic meltdown gave evidence that a globally integrated world economy is not secure when built on a foundation of "more and more" for "less and less."  There is nothing innovative about building business plans on the backs of an insecure, low wage workforce. "Everyday low prices" are built on everyday crumby lifestyles, for Chinese factory workers, and increasingly, for many of us. As the Last Train Home so beautifully and tragically illustrates, this race to the bottom elevates no one.   

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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