In a bid to cut costs, do you cut wages by a third or sack half your workers? Will you hire illegal Vietnamese workers on the cheap? When the heating breaks, will you fix it or let your staff stew in the heat? What does it feel like when your cost-cutting leads directly to someone’s death?
Welcome to World Factory, one of the guiltiest pleasures going. Created by Metis and Company of Angels, it’s a piece of game-theatre that puts you in charge of your own clothing factory in China, then fires a barrage of stark ethical dilemmas at you. The pull between profit and people is constant. Every economic choice comes with a human cost. Every human one hits your margins.
The Young Vic’s studio has been turned into a factory floor. Fifteen teams sit at fifteen tables, huddled under a desk lamp. We’re given a wedge of banknotes – business capital – and a file full of workers. They stare off the cards, unsmiling. Each has a name and a story, a family, but there’s no time to care. Your dealer delivers a series of choice cards, each bearing a fresh dilemma for the business – and your conscience. The quicker you choose, the more productive your factory.
Do you notice the videos playing up overhead? Real people at real work-stations, cutting, pressing, sewing; cooped up like battery hens in blank white halls under the cold glare of strip lights. One sits on a bucket, stirring two pots of dye and stares at the camera. Money, George Dodd wrote, "is a veil which hides the producer from the consumer." World Factory peels it all the way back. You sit uneasily in your clothes.
True, deep-down, we know all of this. We know that the ultra-competitive fashion industry is engaged in a constant cost-cutting battle. We know that the price war starts on our high streets. We know that results in poor working conditions, even sweat-shops and child labour. That’s too easily ignored and any reminder is worthwhile. The dealers – Lucy Ellinson, Naomi Christie, Heather Lai and Jamie Martin – lay out the facts in sharp presentational sequences, combining personal stories from the factory floor with politicians spouting economic ideals.
However, World Factory lets you live those ideas as an embodied experience. It’s one thing to be told about low rates of pay, another to be the person implementing those rates. Responsible capitalism isn’t easy. You’ve little control. Consequences are unforeseeable, not least the invisible environmental impact, and decisions must be made, sometimes arbitrarily and often without any real alternative. The sense of competition carries you away, and the game is great fun as a result, but there are no prizes for principles. Only your numbers count. It’s your conscience that has to cope.