Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — After spending a week scuba diving off some remote Asian island in the western Pacific, my guide/pilot informed me that his cousin works in a nearby sweatshop and may be available to answer questions about the local labor conditions. He explained, however, that though it is only a few miles away, the trip can be arduous and may take a long time, maybe days. He failed to mention that the impromptu roadblocks, and subsequent bribes, cost more money than time. However, Lou LaPlante was adamant, when I called into The Scooper to explain the delay in travel plans, that I “get some work in to justify floating around like a jellyfish for a week.”
That is how I found myself in the most squalid factory town that can be imagined. Naked children played in fetid puddles, while other children commuted to work camps in falling-down buildings. The whole town reeked of Wal-Mart shelves and feces. The Wal-Mart smell made sense, as all the crap they sell us is being made in this ruin, but I didn’t see any turds the whole hour I was there.
I was led to one ramshackle building with loud machine noises coming from inside. Many kids were outside smoking and “getting some air” inside the razor-wire perimeter. A few inquiries later and we easily found my guide’s cousin sweating profusely and…I don’t know…I guess ‘slaving away’ would be the right terminology.
“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” says Hung Manh, a Malaysian youth of 12 years old, while melting and smelting, at high risk of injury, the little colored iPhone cases you guys have. Continues Manh, in broken English, “When I was six I knew it was time to get a job, but there were no jobs to get. I think that as the trickle-down economic theory trickled out to the world jobs became more readily available in this, my developing nation,” adding that, “thirty-eight cents a day is a lot for a kid like me. And to think that I am helping Americans live the way they love to live, it’s a win-win, frankly. Americans bomb less people when they are happy, I think.”
“I have heard that there are starving people in America, and I can’t understand that. Americans easily monitor every little pink iPhone case I make, surely they can monitor the raising of a chicken. Can’t they? Surely they wouldn’t trade everything, including food, over to the capitalistic tendencies of the super-rich. I mean, I never even really buy food. Well, for us. I feed the chickens, but that’s cheaper in the long run. ”
We asked him if he felt his work was dangerous.
“No, feeding chickens is easy. Far easier than this stuff – watch your head!”
Ducking my head just in time to dodge a 4-foot razor that just shot by for no apparent reason, I continued with the interview.
Yeah, not the chickens. This place, is it always so dangerous?
“Oh, yeah, it’s a perpetually dangerous work environment. My buddy Myung lost his foot, an ear, and half a hand only yesterday. That’s why he’s not here today, and why you need to help me with this machine. This is the one that messed up Myung yesterday…and killed Bob last Saturday.”
A guy named Bob worked here?
“Well, that’s what we called him. His name was some crazy sounding thing like ‘Bobomaluapzhai’. We don’t have time to yell such a ridiculously long – watch your foot! – the time to yell such a long name when these things are slicing and searing all around you, so we called him Bob. For brevity’s sake.”
When we told Hung that the U.S. is pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage, Manh simply responded, “Yeah, but for them, that will pay for only a single meal. For $1 I can feed my family for a week.” To thank him for his time, The Scooper gave him a couple dollars and got out of that godforsaken danger-zone of a factory.
When I glanced back, just before exiting the factory, I’m pretty sure I saw Mr. Manh flipping me off. Yeah, I think Hung shot me the bird. He might have been aiming it at my cameraman, but I’m pretty sure it was aimed at me.