(2018) Documentary (First Run) Kailash Satyarthi, Ben Skinner, Siddharth Kara, Anas Arameyaw Anas, Mark Barenberg, Nicholas Kristof, Christian Frutigar, Kwaku Afriyie, Satrio Jaya, Margaret Worth, Geoffrey Crothall, Justin Flores, James Jones, Thomas Arcury, Comfort Aklugu, Sumedha Kailash, Isabel Chang. Directed by Shraysi Tandon
When we think of child labor and slavery, we tend to think of them as problems in the distant past. Slavery was eradicated, after all, in virtually every civilized nation on Earth. As for child labor, well, we took care of that at the beginning of the 20th century. Those are both heinous practices that are very much a part of our past but not of our present. I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that.
But if you did think that, you’d be wrong. Child labor is a global issue, affecting products you consume on a daily basis. Well maybe in the Third World, you might think, but not here in the United States. Yes, here in the United States. A loophole in the existing child labor laws allows the agricultural business to employ children. These children are often exposed to pesticides and other chemicals without any sort of protection, do backbreaking work in the fields, and occasionally die from nicotine poisoning in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, absorbing the nicotine from the plant through their skin because their employers won’t provide them with gloves. If they did, they’d have to admit they were employing minors and a lot of agribusiness is uncomfortable doing that. Smoking isn’t just deadly to smokers as it turns out.
This well-researched documentary goes around the world to find children working in a variety of often dangerous jobs with many of them literally slave labor. They mine cobalt for lithium batteries in Africa and mica for make-up (to make it sparkly) in India. They harvest palm fruit in Indonesia for palm oil (used as a preservative in nearly everything we eat) as well as cocoa in Ghana. They work in factories in China assembling cell phones and weave rugs, make jewelry and embroider in India. Chances are much of what you are wearing right now if it was made outside the United States probably had a kid involved in making it at some point.
Same goes with everything you eat. Nearly all the chocolate devoured in this country comes from plantations that utilize child labor and the supply which comes from Ghana is almost always forced labor. Children are paid less if they are paid at all and they are more likely to be docile and less willing to stand up for themselves than adults. Children don’t form labor unions. Often they are beaten when they don’t meet quotas. They rarely get any sort of schooling, being forced to drop out so that they can work. Those that aren’t working as slaves generally do so because their families are starving and the income is needed to survive. All of this in the name of globalization and corporate profit.
For the most part the documentary is set up as most documentaries are – plenty of talking head interviews, footage both archival and current and graphics showing statistics and numbers. In that sense, Invisible Hands isn’t terribly innovative, although we get to go along on a child trafficking sting near the end which if those who were arrested are convicted could lead to ten years in prison or more.
There are organizations that monitor what’s going on with child labor and slave labor (two of the founders of one are some of the more articulate interviews here) and there’s even a Nobel laureate who goes beyond the courtroom to literally rescue kids from sweatshops in India. Kailash Satyarthi has been beaten and seen colleagues murdered in his crusade to rescue children – during the course of the film we see his team attacked by a mob and barely escaping with their lives.
The willful ignorance of big multinational corporations is also examined. Only Nestle was brave enough to send a representative (Frutigar) who is unaware that children are being exploited for their product – which is ironically aimed at children. Much of the problem is that nobody monitors the supply chain; subcontractors often take shortcuts when taking on contracts, leading to using kids as labor in order to maximize profit. It’s a sick, depressing cycle that revolves endlessly and given the pro-business bent of our current administration, one that is unlikely to be addressed anytime soon.
But there is hope. Rescued kids in India by the group Satyarthi runs are brought to Ashrams where they can slowly become whole again. They are generally reunited with their parents unless it is thought that they would be at risk of being sold again. There are those standing up for kids around the world. We can do it too by insisting that those who make the products we consume be responsible and monitor their supply chains in order to make sure that there are no violations of international and local labor laws. Companies like Pantene, Samsung, Nestle, Hershey, Sony, Cadbury, Maybelline, Kraft, Estee Lauder, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Microsoft and a variety of clothing lines should feel an economic response to make them better corporate citizens rather than just paying lip service. Generally a kick in the wallet is all they’ll ever respond to.
This is a vitally important documentary that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Although veteran documentary viewers may grouse a bit at how the information is presented, there is no argument that the information is compelling. Anyone who loves their children will be affected by the sight of miserable children separated from their families toiling in harsh and often dangerous conditions. It’s enough to break even a heart of stone.
REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers did their due diligence. Some of the footage is absolutely horrifying.
REASONS TO STAY: The layout is essentially standard documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film for Tandon who began her career as a television journalist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stolen Childhoods
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10