Human trafficking is like a virus…a corporate virus. It infects virtually every important industry in the world. I can point to several documentaries about the horrors of human sex trafficking, just in the Film Threat archives alone, but Shraysi Tandon’s Invisible Hands takes a step back and reveals the pervasiveness of child labor/slavery in every country in the world, and yes, the United States included. Social justice documentaries are challenged with shining a light on global problems while not coming off as shaming the audience or being overly preachy, all in hopes of prodding us into action.
The opening title sequence of Invisible Hands simply states, “Ending the cycle of poverty begins with eliminating child labor.” From here we are taken into a textiles factory in India, where the scarred and disfigured hands of children are hurriedly sewing and embroidering garments meant for the next shipment to…well…us privileged Americans. The footage is captured by Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, one of the leaders of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan movement to end child labor in India.
Kailash and his crew invade the shop and proceed to remove the children from forced labor. For his trouble, we see footage of Kailash running down the street followed by an angry mob of thugs. He trips and is beaten mercilessly until he escapes to his getaway car. In the safety of the interview room, Kailash simply lays out the problem. The ever-present need to increase profits, large corporations demand their suppliers to lower their prices. The best way to do that is hire cheap labor and the fact is children are the cheapest. They are easily exploitable. They can be coerced into working long hours for little to no pay. The cost to the child is seemingly nothing to their employer. Nothing except that child never being able to experience life and joy as a child.
“The cost to the child is seemingly nothing to their employer. Nothing except that child never being able to experience life and joy as a child.”
Invisible Hands presents its case in a way that is easy to understand, easy to believe, and in the end, forces you to think about the origins of the things we buy and consume every day. First, the breadth of the problem. Child labor happens in every country. Agriculture in the United States is the only industry where it’s legal to higher children. In Ghana, children are sold into slavery by family members. In Indonesia, families are forced to use their children to meet harvesting quotas, or they’re fined or fired when they fall short.
The next problem is greed and turning a blind eye. Corporate culpability comes in the simple phrase, “I didn’t know.” Palm oil is a product widely used in farming, food production, and a high number of household cleaning products. Indonesian company Wilmar is one of the largest producers of palm oil. Wilmar claims not to use child labor, mainly because they don’t harvest the palm leaves themselves. No, they hire local plantations to harvest the leaves and in turn hire child labor. They are hidden from public scrutiny because they exist so far down the supply chain.
This is only a small part of what Tandon’s documentary covers. She catches government officials and law enforcement agents on camera refusing to enforce existing child labor laws. She also features an undercover journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who goes in and purchases children in a sting operation. Tandon also documents a loophole in China, who claims to have eradicated child labor, yet uses teens to produce our cell phones, air conditioners, and televisions, while calling it an internship.
“The best part…is how well the case is made against child labor. We get a sense of the consequences it has on children…”
Can anything stop this runaway slave train? There are glimmers of hope. People like Kailash Satyarthi who gets rescues children and whose colleagues have been beaten and murdered in the effort. There are organizations that perform due diligence and provide verification and certification that the products you buy are child labor free. The documentary also calls out a company like BMW, who refuses to do business with any company that employs children.
The final challenge is to us. Now that we’re aware of the problem, we know that the best way to fight the problem is through money and we can become more knowledgeable and intentional about where food and clothing dollars are spent.
The best part of Shraysi Tandon’s Invisible Hands is how well the case is made against child labor. We get a sense of the consequences it has on children, the corporate greed factor, and the unbelievable size of the problem. The film’s experts are knowledgeable, well-spoken and persuasive; the children’s stories are heartbreaking; and you can’t walk away feeling like it’s not that big of a deal. Overall, it’s a polished and well-produced documentary about a problem that far from ending.
Invisible Hands (2018) Directed by Shraysi Tandon. Written by Chad Beck. Featuring Kailash Satyarthi, Nicholas Kristof, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, Ben Skinner.
8 out of 10 stars