Ghost cities and the haunting suffering of migrant workers

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Dev Arul Jayakumar reflects on a disturbing film about what migrant workers endure for the sake of ‘development’.

It is quite an achievement to convey a story with little or no dialogue at all. Zhao Liang’s film Behemoth does just that.

The film is a bleak, sad and largely silent depiction of what migrant workers endure in coal mines in Inner Mongolia, China. It grabs our attention through its stunning visuals, leaving us to interpret and come to our own understanding of what we have seen.

The workers’ story is haunting, their work gruelling. Harrowing to watch, the film is a powerful story of the waste of human life and natural resources in the pursuit of misguided development.

It shows us how the profit-maximisation ethos of capitalists directly affects the lives of the poor. People who are working in menial jobs – in this case, the mine workers – find themselves with no security, pensions, health benefits, and stability for their families. The workers toil long hours in severe conditions – and usually fall ill, sometimes seriously.

The film not only gives us a glimpse into their grim lives, but also helps us understand how ‘development’ takes place despite the detrimental impact it may have on people, society and the environment. Not surprisingly, the documentary was banned in China.

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Workers like those in Behemoth toil to build more infrastructure and raise productivity in the country. But what is the real benefit of development if human wellbeing is sacrificed in the process?

As a society, we are responsible for improving the welfare of the people. That may involve constructing buildings, bridges and roads, reclaiming land and improving living conditions. Yet, migrant workers, who are often engaged for this task of development, tend to bear a disproportionate burden.

Infrastructure is built to raise living standards – yet, this documentary shows us that sometimes development hardly benefits the ordinary people. All that hard work in the mines ends up being wasted in completing ghost cities. Nobody lives in these desolate cities. The sheer waste of resources in the construction of housing and roads is obvious.

The film shows these migrant workers slogging in an endless destructive cycle. The developers of these cities may earn a fortune but many others suffer and live a life of oppression in the process.

This happens among migrant workers not only in China but in many other countries as well. Often, there is no help for them, no voice to speak on their behalf.

So it is we, the common people, who have to make the change for them. We need to speak up for those working in oppressive conditions. If no one speaks out, the cycle will not end.

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

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I believe in the holistic development of a society. It is part of human nature to enhance our wellbeing.

But never should we benefit or profit on the back of the suffering of others. All migrant workers need to be treated equally – with dignity – and be given fair treatment.

Dev Arul Jayakumar is a psychology graduate currently doing an internship with Aliran. He recently participated in an Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Youth and Activism.

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