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'Last Train Home' (2009): An Analysis of Corporate Crime

A paper I wrote for my fourth-year university seminar, which was a runner-up for publication in the University of Toronto Criminology Review.

Image Courtesy of Fandor

The difficulty in studying corporate crime is that the issue itself is impeded by a lack of accessible knowledge and awareness of corporate harms, and their effects on socioeconomic and environmental conditions. Though in light of what many argue to be the gradual decline in investigative journalism, one of the prime vehicles in multimedia journalism for analyzing the origins and consequences of corporate harms is the broadcasting of feature-length documentary films.

The aim of this paper is to present an analysis of one particular feature-length documentary film called Last Train Home, which speaks to factory crimes against Chinese migrant workers in the city of Guangzhou. The analysis entails key themes and core arguments put forth in the film, the techniques used by the filmmakers to highlight said themes, parallels between the film and its concepts and themes as examined in the relevant literature, and an overall evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the film in communicating the issue, including the validity of its claims and the extent to which these claims are either supported or contradicted by the literature in whole or in part. 

Finally, the paper will conclude with a commentary on the film’s potential significance in raising public awareness regarding harms against workers and how it could possibly influence social change. 

I first heard about Last Train Home, surprisingly enough, through a YouTube personality under the online alias JonTron, whose content I view fairly regularly. He once briefly mentioned in an episode of a Let’s Play web series called Game Grumps that he had seen the film and was deeply saddened by it, citing its impact and quality.

I tend to favour films that evoke emotional reactions through expressive social commentary, so I naturally took an interest in viewing this particular film for myself. I also felt that, because I am a writer and am increasingly concerned about corporate crime, this was an opportune place for me to document my thoughts and findings in response to the film.

What is the film arguing?

It is important to note that Last Train Home primarily focuses on the lives of the Zhang family, and how their struggle to find prosperity affects their internal dynamic. I believe the message that the filmmakers are trying to get across is that migrant workers are not only burdened by finding and holding down jobs that pay very little and often demand overtime shifts, but they also face difficulties in keeping their families together.

Many workers do not even meet their newborn children until months later when they are able to visit their families. Train tickets are expensive in Guangzhou, and most workers are fortunate enough to return home at least once a year, if at all.

In the Zhang’s case, being raised by one grandparent has caused the daughter Qin to harbour resentment towards her parents because their near-permanent absence in her life has caused her to believe that they only care about the money and do not wish to be with her or her younger brother, Yang.

In actuality, the parents have been labouring for two decades just to afford their children an education, so that they have a better chance at a successful life. This shows that the issue extends beyond the workplace, especially when societal pressures are in play with regards to schooling and working vigorously for the realization of a prosperous and luxurious life.

Filming Techniques

What makes this documentary unique is that it is filmed and edited very much like a regular movie with a concrete narrative, and it is devoid of the usual documentary tropes such as voice-over narration, reporting, and anything characteristic of expository storytelling that covers the big picture of the issue.

Instead, the film is heavily atmospheric and character-driven, with shots cutting between the surroundings and the participants interacting with it and one another, only occasionally speaking directly to the camera. The cameramen also make no attempt to intervene; they just capture each moment as it naturally occurs.

Links to Academia

The film definitely implies that there are barriers to knowledge about corporate crime, and the greatest example of such ignorance can be seen in one of the later scenes in the film where Qin begins working at a bar, and the employees all gather around at one point to watch a tourism infomercial about the beauty of Chinese culture.

All of them have completely baffled expressions on their faces as they continue viewing it, and such a reaction can be attributable to the fact that most people, while aware that the majority of our goods are exported from China, are “either not informed or do not care about the working conditions of the people who make [those goods]” (Fudge, 2001: 146). Instead, issues of exploitation and disparity are swept under the rug in favour of attracting foreigners with picturesque places and conditions in the country.

Both the working and living conditions in and near the Guangzhou factories are subpar at best; they look claustrophobic and unsanitary, and lack any sort of protective wear or safety mechanisms for the workers (in particular, safety guards on their sewing machines). To make matters worse, children can be seen sleeping and running around in these poorly lit factories.

Because of their long hours, the workers themselves have irregular eating schedules, with inadequate meals that they share amongst themselves, and they fall ill often, unable to seek medical attention due to the unaffordable expenses. They are also unable to obtain enough water to thoroughly bathe themselves, so they use it to wash their feet.

Such conditions are not uncommon in these environments; for example, cookware factories in Taiwan are essentially dark basements with little ventilation and hazardous equipment (Brown, 2001: 210). First-aid kits may also be non-existent, and discovering expired fire extinguishers is certainly not a rare occurrence.

One would think that, after an inspection, brands would pull out of the factories, but inspectors are not necessarily there to improve the situation per se, but rather to reinforce the brands’ good name in that they care for their workers by inviting inspection, which is actually not the case (Brown, 2001: 211-2).

Speaking of inspections, the film seems to suggest that these factories do not get inspected for their conduct, which might explain why the situation in Guangzhou is so undermined. Based on the Zhang’s infrequent visits to their home province in Sichuan, I am led to believe that not only does the couple hardly earn enough for train tickets, but they are also very likely prohibited from leaving the workplace very often.

Again, this sort of practice is nothing out of the ordinary; overtime shifts in factories are common and are not usually paid at the legal rate (depending on the state in question), and imported workers are often denied access to their passports (Brown, 2001: 211), so in the Zhang’s case, I would not be surprised if they are practically being confined to their stations as a result of high demand for labour and cheap prices from foreign companies.

At one point in the film, Qin reveals that, as she was working in a factory, she and her friend had been subjected to verbal abuse and harassment from their supervisors. There also appear to be no trade unions in any of these factories, and none of the workers even dare to negotiate wages. These practices, along with those previously mentioned, are all examples of systematic violations of workers’ rights (although it can debated whether workers’ rights are even acknowledged to begin with) that can be found in many factories, such as the infamous Nike sweatshops.

Aside from safety and health issues, trade union discrimination, and compulsory, underpaid overtime, workers are regularly subjected to corporal verbal and physical abuse (Carty, 2011: 25), which is especially the case with female workers in terms of sexual harassment. The migrant workers in Guangzhou have also said that many people who lose their jobs are left without any employment insurance or welfare, although they claim that they do not require much for a sufficient life.

There is one statement Qin makes that will always haunt my memory, and that is when she proclaims that freedom is happiness, once she is recruited as a factory worker. Relegating oneself to repressive rules and discriminatory policies would not be widely considered to be a path toward freedom, but to a young, impoverished girl who desires independence and to actualize her goals, this is, ironically, a chance to hopefully improve her situation.

Her parents, while unsupportive of her decision, admit that it is difficult to find and maintain work, and even more difficult to be away from the family and unable to parent properly. Regardless, they would much rather work in this miserable setting because they want to ease their children’s suffering and invest in their future.

Workers like them do not feel as though they are being exploited, because in their minds, more work means more money, and instead of draining their family’s resources, they can send money back home every month (Brown, 2001: 213). They also worry about their factories being shut down, because they feel as though they have no other options, and when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the salaries dropped to a level that made numerous workers quit on their own, including the mother, who was growing weary from labour, leaving her husband to continue working despite his age.

Although workers, including factory operators, make very little money that they resultantly do their best to save, export prices are nevertheless incredibly low, and none of the brands that they make orders for appear in their own markets.

This illustrates notions of cheap capitalism and the race-to-the-bottom; whereby production is facilitated by low prices, inferior quality of labour and raw materials, and corrupt business ethics and social morality in order to maximize profits for the industry and foreign companies at the expense of employees’ benefits (Cheng, 2012: 254).

On top of sending money back home, the Zhang couple barely earn enough each month to afford the essentials, let alone luxury goods, which is consistent with the fact that the majority of poor, working-class consumers cannot afford to buy adequate goods and services despite their hard labour (Cheng, 2012: 255).

How does the film hold up?

The cinematography is where the strength of this film lies. It effectively captures the reality of China’s vast number of social and economic issues, which derive from its unsustainable population and productivity mentality by relying almost exclusively on the visuals in motion. It does not feel the need to explain to the viewers what they are able to see and infer for themselves—there will not be a happy ending for these labourers anytime soon.

It also masterfully depicts familial conflict, an aspect that is missing from a lot of documentaries that focus on harms against workers. We might falsely assume that these families try to be supportive of one another and remain as close as possible, and thus tend to ignore this dynamic in order to focus solely on labour issues.

Contrarily, the film shows us that we need to understand the extent to which all aspects of life are affected, and what sort of emotions and decisions cause an individual’s socioeconomic status to reflect the greater issues in a country.

China is known for its emphasis on reputation, by pushing its youth to study well and one day achieve success in their careers, and yet so many rural inhabitants are high school dropouts, not because they are intentionally trying to be rebellious, but because they feel the need to find a better way to try and improve their lives. When faced with limited options, it is no wonder why there are such large disparity gaps and unfavourable statistics.

Although it is subtly hinted at, there is a gender dynamic the film addresses as well, since the family seems more hopeful of Yang than of Qin, not only because she disobeyed their wishes, but because she is female and does not traditionally carry as much adult responsibility as the male does in their eyes. Yang has more pressure placed on him to excel in school and to one day support the family than Qin does, and he does receive more attention than her overall, causing her to believe she is unloved.

Gender roles and this kind of degradation begin with intimate relationships and seemingly minor remarks family members might make, and eventually influence the mentality in various scenarios, namely the workforce, which is why I praise the film for not shying away from showcasing this problem.

There are some details, however, that I would have liked more emphasis on, particularly the farm labour, which is briefly mentioned by the grandmother in the beginning. All we know from the film alone is that children and elders living in the countryside are asked to remain there while the migrant workers are away, so that agriculture can continue to prosper as an industry.

Nevertheless, I believe the documentary could have benefitted from depictions of harmful farming practices and how contaminated soils from fertilizers, pesticides and heavy metals are also affecting people's lifestyles (Cheng, 2012: 257). This could have also brought attention to the fact that poorer regions are more likely to become victimized by health and safety issues, particularly from contaminated and genetically-modified food, due to high exposure, low degree of awareness relative to more privileged citizens, and the need to save money (Cheng, 2012: 259). This is a severely undermined, yet highly detrimental issue that necessitates focus.

For what it is though, I appreciate its ability to maintain a coherent narrative all the way through, and the way in which it highlights aspects of a working-class citizen’s life that do not receive as much focus in other documentaries.

I sincerely believe that this documentary will show potential viewers the major inequality within a country, the exploitation labourers face, the environmental damage made in order for China to compete on the international stage, and the unfortunate breakdown of a family’s solidarity as a consequence of these developments, something that may not be as unusual as we might think.

In turn, it can potentially yield social change in the form of movements and advocacy groups from various areas, mostly notably those that focus on women’s rights, workers’ rights, job market expansions that reach rural communities, environmental safeguards, youth’s education that is affordable, and local, family-oriented services and programs.

Bibliography

Brown, S.J. (2001). “Confessions of a Sweatshop Monitor.” Albion Monitor: 209-213

Carty, V. (2011). “Students Against Sweatshops and Corporate Responsibility: The Anti-Nike Campaign.” Wired and Mobilizing: Social Movements, New Technology and Electoral Politics: 20-40

Cheng, H. (2012). “Cheap Capitalism: A Sociological Study of Food Crime in China.” British Journal of Criminology. 52: 254-273

Fudge, J. (2001). “Consumers to the Rescue? Campaigning Against Corporate Abuse of Labour.” Using Power: The Canadian Experience: 146-159

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