Philip Cheah talks to Nan Achnas

How did you get interested in that story?

I was approached by a freelance producer, Emily Marlow, who was in Jakarta scouting for filmmakers to do a documentary for TVE London about female workers especially in the field of manufacturing in developing countries. Then I went to a production company called Miles Productions (owned by Mira Lesmana) who was interested and I then worked with Shanty Harmayn (who was working in Miles at that time) as producer on the project.

What did you eventually learn from your research, for example, working conditions, industrial practices and people's lives?

We had researched and found the factory worker featured before we obtained permission to shoot at the Nike factory where she worked. Apparently there are two Nike factories owned by the same company and we were allowed only to shoot in the one which apparently has better working conditions. At the factory, the management was very obliging and allowed us to shoot in all sections of production. There was this small shop in one of the offices where they sell the factory seconds. I asked the girl whom we featured if the workers would buy the discounted sneakers but she laughed and said that even at a quarter of the price they couldn't afford them.


I saw an interview with Phil Knight of Nike in a film by Michael Moore called The Big One and he said that the only way for big companies to sustain themselves is to continually look for cheaper production. Who has Nike really benefitted in Indonesia?

During the shoot of the documentary I saw all these thousands of faces intent in their regimented work. So clear was their objective of the day. To finish a certain number of shoes within an hour. They come from all over the country to work for that minimum wage set by the government. A paltry amount compared to the final price tag of the item. Is it worth it? The factory workers say that it's better than unemployment, it's better than just staying in their villages.

What are your thoughts about globalisation? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

It is crucial for a country like Indonesia to have economic opportunities no matter how small and seemingly trivial they are. The participation of such economic opportunities will encourage a whole range of processes. The process of economic freedom, political freedom, social reforms and other forms of initiatives that comes out of being participants of a process. The basic educational requirements for a factory worker has risen from a primary school diploma to a senior high school diploma. Through education, knowledge and the change in political reform of the country, the once silent factory workers are now vocal of their rights in the working place.

Have you had any chance to see what had happened to those people you documented? What has happened to them? Has it changed for the better?

No, I'm afraid not. As for the disadvantages of globalisation, when one thinks of development in a country like Indonesia, most of the ideas, thoughts, strategies and implementations are adopted or imposed from and by the developed world. This has created an imbalance in all levels and sectors of society. In trying to keep up with globalisation, countries heavy in debt are even further compromised because whatever revenue we get is for the payment of loans from rich donor countries.

This is when it is very easy for the developed world to force their agendas to developing countries. In Indonesia, for example, the import of Hollywood films is tied up with the threat of trade sanctions especially in textiles exported to the United States.

Note: The above interview was published in BigO #196 (April 2002).
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