A Singaporean man’s review of Netflix’s ‘American Factory’: A case study in labour relations

American Factory screenshot: a Fuyao Glass America employee in Ohio

The Obama-backed documentary “American Factory” dropped on Netflix on 21 August (Wednesday), and in the context of the escalating trade war between the US and China, it is a must-watch.

While the reviews I’ve read have focused on the ‘clash of cultures’ (Chinese vs American), I say that the film is an investigation into the intricacies of building organisational culture and human relations management. What makes it interesting is the novelty aspect of a Chinese employer managing American workers in the US.

The key ‘character’ in question is Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, who says his agenda in selecting the US to open his glass factory is a nationalistic one: to bridge the cultural divide between the US and China, and showcase China in a positive light to Americans.

Portrait of Fujian billionaire and Chairman Cao Dewang (Photo credit: Fuyao Group)

Unfortunately, some 3 years into production and this goal of Chairman Cao has not bore fruit. Don’t be mistaken – the factory has become profitable as of last year (2018), but Sino-US relations are in its worst state since the Cold War. Fuyao Group perhaps didn’t really help to alleviate the bitter economic tensions; by the end of film, they tighten the workforce in favour of automation.

The incredible amount of access given to filmmakers paints a vivid and bleak picture of how difficult it is to operate a factory in a foreign land, especially one in which the standards of manufacturing efficiency has fallen way, way behind China’s.

First, they need to train and whip the American workforce into shape.

Second, supervisors have to see that workers’ welfare and safety standards meet US criteria.

Third, they had to fight a unionisation movement by a group of activist American workers.

It is not easy to manage a workforce in a mature economy such as the US’s, where welfare standards are high and the individual rights are often placed above the group. It is especially hard for the Chinese supervisors where back home, the workers basically function in military-style efficiency. The Chinese workers in Fujian are basically drones for upper management.

How then does the chairman expect to change views of China in America, when there is such a huge gap in working culture? It is a social experiment that soured, by the end of the film.

What I like about this film is that it is a fair representation of both the Chinese and American sides. It gives a voice to workers at the grassroots, including their gripes and complains whether real or imagined.

There’s Reggie, an African American man in employee relations, who has to bear the brunt of his peers’ complaints and quarrels in the factory. He takes it in his stride though.

There’s Wong, a Chinese furnace engineer, who shared about the agonising home sickness of leaving his wife and two sons to work in America.

There’s Curt, an American supervisor who speaks Mandarin and privately agrees that his counterparts aren’t as productive.

There’s ex-VP Dave Burrows, who said he wanted to chop off the head of the senator who called for the formation of a union at an address in Fuyao. After he was axed from the company, he remarked that “you can’t spell ‘Fuyao’ without ‘F-U’”.

As a Chinese Singaporean who lived in the US for four years, I empathise with both cultures and workers. They are just everyday folks trying to make a living. But I’m inclined to think that the anti-China sentiment in the US, perhaps, made it harder for the Chinese management to enforce standards and efficiency. How do you get Americans to respect China when every presidential election the country is scapegoated for America’s economic woes?

China has been scapegoated ever since the Communists took charge. These years of hammering in the media probably took its toll on factory operations. If the factory was operated by owners and supervisors of other nationalities, would they have the same problems? You be the judge.

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