Better Living through Poverty

From "Survivor’s" remote jungles to "Big Brother’s" households under lockdown, reality TV is always searching for new frontiers to colonize. The latest setting is the farms and factories of impoverished countries, which serve as sites for extreme challenges for telegenic youth. In "Blood, Sweat and Takeaways," a recent series on Discovery Communications’ Planet Green channel, six young "fast food junkies" from England travel to Indonesia and Thailand to meet the workers who toil for their cheap meals and to "learn the true human cost of their consumption." (In British slang, "takeaways" refers to fast food takeout.)

Across four episodes, the British youths labor alongside locals in the difficult work of producing rice, prawns, tuna, and chicken, while living on the same paltry wages and in the same cramped huts. The Westerners retch, cry, and faint when confronted with the daily realities of backyard pit toilets and repulsive shit rivers that crisscross the slums; relentless assembly lines and filthy farm drudgery; and sex-worker mothers and sweatshop children.

The visuals of labor and living conditions in the developing world will likely be eye-opening for many viewers, as it is for the youth, whose reactions provide added emphasis. "We’re eating prawns that probably cost us 5 or 6 pounds—all the way to Britain," says Josh, a 20-year-old mortgage advisor from the city of Warrington. "It puts it all in perspective. How hard these guys work for absolutely nothing." To the series credit, it does discuss wages in relation to production, explaining, for example, how each worker in a tuna factory receives $5 a day for cleaning enough tuna loins to fill 600 cans that the company sells for 80 cents a tin. What this means is each worker is paid about .8 cents for each can, barely 1 percent of the sale price. But within the genre of reality TV, such exposure also serves as sensationalistic "poorism." We ogle at the squalor, allowing us to appreciate our comfortable lifestyles. Likewise, the aim of this series is not to present solutions to Third World poverty, but to fix the attitudes of spoiled first-world visitors, who are the true subjects. "I came here to learn about food," says Josh. "But I seem to be learning so much about myself."

Before the youth are dispatched to capitalism’s backwaters, some express smug satisfaction with the global depredations that secure their comforts. Manos, who lives on fried chicken and chips, is a Westernized 20-year-old political science student from London, much to the chagrin of his Bangladeshi father, who declares "he has to change." Manos "doesn’t care how cheap chicken is produced," proclaiming, "If one man is to live in luxury then the evil necessities of economic exploitation must occur." Olu, a British bodybuilder of Nigerian descent, is of a similar mindset and his father hopes "he will learn something deep that he will never learn in England." While loading up his basket with meat products at his local supermarket, Olu tells the camera, "I don’t know how they produce it, where they produce it, I don’t care, keep producing it.… I’m going to have as much as possible."

Others are blissfully ignorant. Josh, who owns his own home, does not appreciate what he has. According to his father, "Josh can go for the easy options quite often." Jess, whose family calls her Paris Hilton because "she wants everything to go her way," is oblivious to the efforts of others to afford her this lifestyle. Only Stacey, cast as the "concerned consumer," is interested in the labor conditions behind the food she loves.

In the first episode, the six Brits tackle the tuna industry in Indonesia. After a tough day on the factory floor, gutting, skinning, and filleting fish, Jess, Lauren, and Stacey are shocked to receive barely $3 in pay. In one of the few clashes between labor and capital in the series, the women tepidly ask if the workers are "happy with what they earn." Sharon, the tuna canning factory’s quality controller, responds, "It’s enough for workers." And anyway, she continues, "They can’t do anything about it…. They have no other choice."

What the privileged youth and viewers really learn about the true human cost of consuming cheap food, clothes, and electronics is that there is not much they can do to address brutal poverty or working conditions in the Global South. The only thing they really can change, we are led to believe, is themselves. Poverty still has a role to play, though the Brits’ encounters with poverty lead to minor adjustments in their personalities, lifestyles, and consumption habits.

"At a time when privatization, personal responsibility and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies," argue scholars Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, "reality TV shows us how to conduct and ’empower’ ourselves as enterprising citizens." "Takeaways" fits snuggly into the sub-genre of intervention as do makeover shows such as "The Biggest Loser," Jamie Oliver’s "Food Revolution," "Intervention," and "Extreme Makeover." But rather than the poor and middle class in the U.S. who, according to Ouellette and Hay, apply by the hundreds of thousands for reality TV programs, here the wealthy and self-absorbed are taught how to discipline their egos, to be grateful for their privilege and to thus become manageable political and economic subjects.

Remaking The Ego

Each episode of "Takeaways" (and its predecessor  "Blood, Sweat, and T-Shirts") presents a seven-step guide for puncturing the swollen ego through the use of exposure to poverty: shock, rebellion, awareness, and guilt, followed by confession, redemption, and, finally, personal transformation. As the youth reject local food and hospitality during the "shock" phase, our distaste for them grows, heightening the drama, but at the expense of insulting their hosts. "I understand our ways of life are different," says Pan Jai in a Bangkok slum. "I tried to help them. The way they reacted disappointed me." In Indonesia, Manos vomits when taken to an outdoor latrine, which leads the homeowner to say she is offended. When tuna factory workers say they would be happy if their children were able to get similar jobs, Jess, ignoring the Indonesian workers beside her, exclaims to the other Westerners, "I just think it’s unreal how they think their job is a good job."

In the dramatic clashes that inevitably ensue, the youth crack under pressure, challenging managers, shunning work, blaming each other, and storming off. "Manos still misses the point," intones the narrator. "Indonesians do hard work for low pay, with no attitude." Such tantrums slow the incessant pace of production, jeopardizing the youths’ pay and forcing the group into a suspenseful decision between rent or dinner. The Brits can always quit the game, however. Stacey bribes a worker with cosmetics to finish her garment quota, Jess flatly refuses to skin fish, and Mark walks away when told to carry a massive load of cotton on his head. When times get really tough, the weary youth choose a four-star hotel, dinner at McDonald’s, or first-class medical care in a hospital room that looks like a penthouse.

After the visceral immersion, the test begins: can the contestants separate 12 pieces of chicken per minute, clean 1,000 prawns per hour, and build a mud dike by hand before sundown? The locals are once again dehumanized in the process: "I’m a human being, not a robot. I can’t do this," says Manos. "We’re not Indonesian workers," says an exasperated Jess. "It’s just not what we do."

But the game for the rich is at the expense of the poor. The Western youth get an education, but it’s the locals who must work late to compensate. Ratmi, a line supervisor in the tuna factory, is yelled at after the Brits botch the day’s output. She and the other supervisors are told not to blame the Westerners for the drop in production and are made to stay an extra four hours without pay to finish the work.

When "reality" settles in for the youth, the transformation begins. "If I knew this is where my prawns come from, every prawn I’d eat I’d treasure so much," says Josh. If Manos had known how his beloved fast-food chicken was processed he would have "become vegan long ago." After meeting cotton pickers who earn perhaps $2 a day, shopaholic Georgina vows to stop buying cheap clothes that she wears once and chucks away. Seeing the face of the poor of the global production body makes all participants feel guilty and they begin to recognize the need for change.

The dramatic arc builds, not to a resolution of social change, but to individual confessions. Manos and Josh are expelled from the tuna factory for sloppy work and sent to sea. One inky black night on a rickety fishing boat, after a round of song and apparent camaraderie with their Indonesian cohorts, Manos blurts out his confession: "I have to apologize," he begins hesitantly—not for their reality, but for his own ego. "I need to change." After a quick cut to a confused-looking fisherperson, another issues his blessing: "Yes, this is good," he says. Manos is redeemed.

As Manos confesses, we cut back to the young women at the tuna factory as they receive their meager pay. They go home with chocolate and $1.60 for their host Ratmi. Stoic throughout the episode, Ratmi breaks down when given money, driving the women to embraces and a baptism of tears. "If the poor are happy and grateful for so little, I can change my behavior too," sobs Lauren. Stacey says, "I’ve got so much and I do appreciate it. Seeing what people have here and how happy they still are, it brings it all home for you, you know?"

The lack of choice and agency is a refrain throughout the series. "You see poverty, seeing it close up, smelling it close up, how can people choose to live like this. But that’s the point, there is no choice," says Josh. "Over here, you don’t have choice. Either you do it or you starve yourself to death," says Jess. Never asked are the seemingly obvious questions: what are the roots of this poverty; how can the economic system be changed; what are the alternatives? Instead, we are taught to accept life as it is, disciplining labor and behavior on either side of the commodity chain, with humility and grace. By engaging with the "natural" workings of the market, they learn there is no alternative to it.

In the final phase—transformation—the youth become more governable subjects back home. Mark will appreciate that his mother, whom he lives with, dotes on him. Manos expresses newfound interest in his family and heritage. Jess will "cherish every bit of food I have and not complain." Richard, who was part of the "T-Shirts" crew, will "reassess his materialistic life" and seek "to inform people of what’s going on." His transformation, apparently, is limited. A camera follows him into a local pub where, over a brew with a mate, Richard laughs about designing a possible clothing label that says, "Not made by a 12-year-old."

Others seek to create awareness by writing letters or articles. "T-Shirts’" Stacey holds an auction of Indian children’s art (to fund English lessons for them) where she recounts her experiences in the faraway land of "Indi-ahhh." Beseeching supermarket customers to buy fair trade bananas appears to be the most radical action, embraced by Josh. But he is unable to think beyond the market. Buying fair trade bananas allows Josh to feel valorized in his consumption at a premium price even if the actual return to the workers is minimal (as it is with many fair trade products). In the end, the self-absorbed youth understand their good fortune to be at the luxurious end of the pole sustained by the immiserated masses at the other end.

Enlightened with a dim awareness of global capitalism, some of the youth decide that, while their desire for cheap goods fuels exploitation, boycotting sweatshop labor is counterproductive because their consumption also provides desperately needed employment for the poor. After his experiences in the sweatshops of India, Richard concludes, "We’re being a massive help, otherwise they’d have nothing. You think conditions are bad now, if all UK consumers revolt, just imagine what their conditions would be like then."

The Personal Is Apolitical

Takeaways" and "T-Shirts" make visible the bottom of the commodity chain only to obscure its enormous middle—the corporations, politicians, bureaucrats, and financiers that make up modern capitalism. There is no talk of the role transnational corporations, banks, or markets play in ordering the production, distribution, and consumption of goods. We don’t hear how Western states, the World Bank, IMF, and WTO force and bribe developing world politicians into lowering their economies’ defenses, decimating social welfare and workers’ rights protections, while prioritizing export-oriented production. When this middle collapses, we are left with individuals on either side tossing personal responsibility back and forth like a hot potato.

For instance, in "T-Shirts," Stacey takes on the sweatshop owner: "He’s a nasty piece of work," she says to the camera and with hands on her hips, begins to badger him as well. Finally, she asks: "Where do these clothes go?" "To London," he replies, "which means you shouldn’t be wearing them." This stops her in her tracks. "This traces the commodity chain a bit," she says later. "It ends up in a trendy shop looking beautiful and the whole process is lost and a baby made it."

Where did that process go? According to this series, it’s one’s personal responsibility not to hire babies, another’s personal responsibility not to buy cheap clothes. To buy or not to buy. Whether it is nobler to exploit children or let them starve. But don’t ask why things are this way or bring that invisible "process"—the capitalist system—into focus.


Michelle Fawcett teaches communications and international development at NYU and is working on a book about culture, neoliberalism and UNESCO corporate partnerships entitled The Market for Ethics. Arun Gupta is a founding editor of The Indypendent and is writing a book on the politics of food for Haymarket Books.