American factory (2019) by Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar

The documentary American Factory follows Fuyao, a Chinese company setting up its first factory in Ohio, repurposing what used to be a GM factory that was shut down during the 2008 recession.

The film is a historical document that investigates and records two very different cultures colliding. American culture, built on individualism, democracy and capitalism, clashes with Chinese culture, which is entirely communist and traditionalist. But for better or worse, people from these two cultures are forced to work together.

The film surprises you here by showing how this does not lead to instant animosity. Yes, there are conflicts. However, those arise during any shift in management. Instead, what we see is the eagerness of unemployed Americans to welcome the Chinese company as it offers them the security that was stripped away from them. In the same manner, the Chinese do not arrive as conquerors or abusers, but as hopeful pioneers. Chairman Cao, the owner of Fuyao, is shown saying, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, in wanting only American decorations up in the entrance area.

However, as the film progresses and time passes, we also see other issues come to light. While the language barrier is circumvented, the fundamental differences in how the two cultures approach work forms the foundation of a major conflict. It is here that we gain insight into why things such as immigration of a large number of people from one country to another often lead to tension. It is not that there is evil intent, but that the world is comprised of many conflicting ideologies and they do not do well when put in the same pot. For example, the Chinese are used to 7 days a week, 12hrs a day work shifts. The Americans expect 8hrs a day, 5 days a week. This, and the comparatively low pay that they are getting, heightens tensions. These are people who have been raised with a strong sense of self-worth, and a sense of individualism—which is in sharp contrast to the Chinese, who have been raised to put the country, their company, and family above the individual—in that order. On one side, you have the American workers who are desperate for jobs but also used to a very different work environment, and on the other, you have the Chinese employees and supervisors who are fish out of water in America but also are faced with expectations from the same employers. It is wholly unique in that never before have the Chinese and the Americans had to work on such equal footing and in unison.

It is somewhat ironic as Americans are finally being asked to do the kind of work that many sweatshops (where American companies get their work done) do. One would hope that being confronted with these expectations and conditions would push them to make their companies treat their foreign employees better.

The film thus shows us the similarities and differences between these cultures, as well as brings to light the plight of the shrinking middle class. It also gives insight into the many issues and benefits this next phase of globalisation brings to the world. The final message of the film, however, is not about the hope of cultural unity or the fear of cultural animosity, but rather the danger automation poses to the lives of many workers. By 2030, 375 million people will be out of work due to automation.

What then should governments and companies be doing to prepare for this? How can they try and possibly help these people who want to work but have nowhere to work?

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