Development tourism without adult supervision-Reflections on Aftenposten’s Sweatshop documentary

I just watched the second season of Sweatshop, a documentary produced for the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten (with English subtitles).

Four Norwegian fashion bloggers continue their investigation into the garment industry in Cambodia and their quest to lobby for a living wage for factory workers after spending the first season inside sweatshops.
Spoiler alert: Not much really happens in the 45 minutes the viewer is allowed to travel with the four young female fashion bloggers and yet, the documentary is an interesting case study in the context of ‘communication for development’.

While I will be critical and while it is difficult not to personalize the review, I do not want to expose the four fashion bloggers. They are playing a role, they have good intentions and they seem genuinely compassionate about the women and their lives they encounter during the journey.
Aesthetically, the documentary moves between music video imagery, gap-year tourism and an often pseudo-investigative approach that centers on the question why factories have guards at the gate and whether they can take a glimpse at one of the factories that supplies to global chains, primarily Swedish H&M.
But during all of this the four fashion bloggers still wear make-up, lip-gloss and tourist-appropriate short sleeve T-Shirts. Right from the beginning, the entire story is focusing on ‘the factory’ which immediately reduces complexity, globalization and value chains to one tangible theme: If factories treat workers OK and pay a living minimum wage of 177 USD/month the world will be a better place.

Re-Enacting a Human Rights Watch paper
The major source for data and providing credibility to the cause appears to be the 2015 Human Rights Watch report
Work faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodias Garment Industry  
and the documentary sometimes seem to re-enact the problems the report pointed out, as if road safety and fainting only become real when the four young women travel on the back of a truck and suffer from mild spells of dehydration.
In Episode 3 they are experiencing the hardship of home-based work themselves when they help one of the women who has a tight deadline for sewing labels on trousers.
In Episode 4, there is a half-hearted attempt to barge into a factory, which leaves the viewers with the revelation that factories are big, employ a lot of women, are noisy and quite hot inside.

In the final episode the women join a demonstration for a higher minimum wage and organize a farewell party-which is not as bad as I thought it could be as the women and activists seem truly appreciative of the concern of the fashion bloggers and their eagerness to pursue the issue of sweatshops further at home in Scandinavia. 
Beyond voluntourism: Event tourism in the global South in the age of #StopKony2012 & selfies
I found it quite striking that the documentary did not feature a single adult protagonist outside Cambodia or an expert of the issues at hand.
On the one hand, I like the idea that a group of young women takes initiative, is active, inquisitive, speaks up and talks on the eye-level of the target audience: Young people hanging out in malls and spending money on unsustainable fashion items. But their simple conclusion ‘it’s the companies’ responsibility to ensure decent work conditions’ reminded me a lot of the Kony 2012 campaign: If we identify a clear target and ‘bad guy’ we can ‘change the world’.
Admirable as it is to join an old-fashioned protest march for a higher minimum wage as global engagement, Cambodian authorities, Chinese factory owners, the European fashion business or transnational civil society are absent from the documentary.

In the end, well-known narratives about young women learning about themselves, admiring ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’ Cambodian women and mothers and combining careers based on Instagram-famed selfies with the revelation that poverty sucks are firmly anchoring the documentary in our contemporary development communication discourses.

How do you communicate structural inequalities?

As I said in the beginning, I am trying to be constructive in my criticism. If re-enacting a policy paper becomes a way to introduce a younger demographic to development advocacy work we have to think more carefully on how this could be done and when to exit the stage of a MTV-style reality show and introduce investigative journalism or more ‘academic’ expert commentary. And as much as I am hesitant to advocate for ‘experience tourism’ I know that the human story and humane connections matter in development communication.
Maybe watching the documentary with students or young people and then discussing the broader issues could be a first step rather than letting pictures ‘speak for themselves’ which they rarely do in our mediatized world…


  1. Very interesting, I also see this kind of "selfpromoting/branding" oneself as musician/helpworker in my social media feed with advices like "play it smart, don't just give money, give resources, make it a loan so they are inclined to work and monitor them. (!) Get to know them and build friendships and trust" followed by selfies with local children and #travellingmusician #thirdworldsociety #adventures #picoftheday aso.. Needless to say, this guy´s is flooded with likes and bravo´s from his friends back home. To his defence, he is very young and I know that his intentions are good. And like you´re saying, a personal story does sell better, so he probably manages to make some of his friends/followers reflect on global injustice.


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