Documentary Review: Film shows us the “Invisible Hands” of child labor

 

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Take a nice long drag on your imported or domestic brand cigarette.

Savor that last morsel of chocolate. And try not to make too much noise with the marvelously hand-crafted, shockingly cheap bracelets that grace discount stores and flea markets from Tuscon to Tampa.

They were all brought to you by kids, children as young as four, harvesting the tobacco and getting poisoned by the vile weed and all the herbicides and chemicals it takes to grow it, hands bloodied by sharp metal edges they file down bracelets so your wrist won’t suffer, mining the minerals that make your smart phone so…practical.

With “Invisible Hands,” filmmaker Shraysi Tandon has made a damning expose, and a documentary piece of advocacy journalism. She lays out the problem — 200 million children the world over, including North America, losing part of their childhood, missing out on education, suffering injuries of developmental issues for the work they’re doing. Millions of them are victims of human trafficking. Others are merely trapped in cycles of poverty in the indentured servitude of palm oil harvesting, cocoa picking, cobalt mining or clothing and jewelry manufacturing.

India to Indonesia, China to Ghana, Mexico to New Mexico, underage labor is making Walmart your low price leader, allowing Nestle, Cadbury and every other chocolatier to “keep costs down,” protecting the bottom line of many a multinational corporation; Nike, Apple, Dow and Old Navy among them.

Tandon, who has worked on the American business documentary series “Bloomberg Game Changers,” interviews Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi and watches him and his fellow Indian activists rescue children from sweatshops all over India.

We see these hands-on activists savagely beaten by gangs of paid thugs, threatened with death by the baseball cap wearing “entrepreneurs” who run the child-staffed clothing and jewelry, their hands bloodied by labor with sharp metals and out of date hand-stamping machines, little boys of 8 or 9 weeping when asked about the work because they, too, fear for their lives.

“Even animals can roam freely,” Satyarthi declares. “These children cannot.”

“Their suffering is turned into our shoes, our clothes, our phones,” Harvard’s human trafficking expert Siddharth Kara adds.

And Tandon gets involved. She questions economists, academics and child welfare advocates, turns blunt with those in charge of child safety and anti-child labor enforcement officials and sets up a sting that shows just how cheap a child sold for work can be on the Horn of Africa.

The film shows the results of pressure that have forced companies such as Nike and Apple to at least make a show of acting more responsibly. The mining that drives the world’s cellular revolution is done by the very young in Congo and India, children enslaved and trapped in lives of drudgery and limited future all so that the rest of us can stand in line at the Apple store for the newest incarnation of the iPhone.

Tandon names names — showing montages of chocolatiers, irresponsible retailers like Walmart, which just don’t want to know (layers of companies have been built to insulate Big Brands from the stain of “Made with the Help of Enslaved Child Labor” labeling.

And she shows us the tobacco-stained hands of children wherever it is grown — including the US, which has antiquated child labor laws written in the 1930s with farm labor loopholes exploited not so much by small family farms, but by Big Agra and its client enablers.

If you grew up in the American South, in the “Heart of Tobaccoland,” as I did, you may not see the harm in that sort of work. Then Tandon shows us the chemicals that the leaves shove through the skin at rates far greater than any smoker would experience. You see the deadly chemicals and increasingly relaxed regulations — even in the US — that cause long term damage in children exposed to them at this age.

China’s vocational school “internship” scam (students marched off to do manual labor at the behest of factories that don’t want to pay) is exposed, the vast palm oil plantations of Indonesia are visited, where they don’t buy child-sized safety gear for the chemical application teams, “because that would be admitting that they use child labor.”

Children cannot negotiate for better working conditions or better salaries, cannot quit and have no control over what they’re being forced to do, many of Shraysi’s experts note. That makes them the easiest workforce to exploit.

And until the buying public takes up their cause, with our voices and our shopping choices, this is a cycle of poverty and exploitation that will not change.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast:Kailash Satyarthi, Ben Skinner, Mark Barenberg, Christian Frutiger, Siddharth Kara, Nicholas Kristof

Credits: Directed by Shraysi Tandon, screenplay by Shraysi Tandon and Chad Beck. A First Run Features release.

Running time: 1:14

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