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When Work Goes Global

Telemarketers in India with perfect West Virginian accents. American cyber-boys paving the high-tech road in Africa. A new PBS series, "PlanetWork," explores the changing nature of employment.
 
 
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At one point in "PlanetWork," the two-part PBS special on how the global economy is transforming work life, the camera turns to a Venetian gondolier. He is methodically navigating a canal in his thousand-year-old home; he pushes his foot off a stone embankment crawling with tourists; and, looking up at a golden Renaissance façade, remarks, "In some ways, we are more advanced. In other ways, we are more primitive than we used to be."

Lorenzo the gondolier's sentiments sum up the middle ground struck by this PBS series. It is neither a condemnation of the effects of economic globalization nor a celebration of it, but an informative and often comic look at how the mass movement of information, products and people is affecting everything from national cultures to the nature of work and the patterns of individual lives.

Watching these two shows back-to-back is a little like swallowing down a globalization pill (were one to exist), with a slight candy-coat. We meet American cyber-boys volunteering their tech skills in Ghana for a group called GeekCorps, Cambodian garment workers striking for better pay in an offshore factory, connoisseurs of Italy's "Slow Food" movement advocating the pleasures of long meals with lots of parmigiano, as well as Gigi Wong, the ultimate American working mom, whose calendar could compete with a U.S. government trade representative out to conquer Asia.

PlanetWork is a whirlwind tour, and it is meant to be. The series' host, the comedian Will Durst, appears hyped and harried. Frenzy and wonder are his schtick as he races from Bangalore to Phnom Penh. And it is an appropriate approach, considering Americans are globalization's greatest partakers and advocates. Twenty million Americans work for multinational corporations. Global corporate mergers, two-thirds of which are American, have increased tenfold in the past 10 years. Last year alone, eight million Americans left the U.S. for business and 19 million for vacation.

At the end of the first part of the series, "Making the Planet Work," Durst concludes with jet-lagged eyes, "This planet is getting real small, real fast." Given the amount of terrain he has covered and lives he has crisscrossed, it is a statement that sinks in, however cliched.

But the purpose of "PlanetWork" -- both part one, "Making the Planet Work," and the part two, "Working the Planet" -- is not just to prove how fun it is to hopscotch the globe. There is much in its two hours that goes beneath entertaining notions of global work culture.

The segment on sweatshop labor in Cambodia, for example, offers an eyewitness account of working and living conditions for those who sew clothes for American designers. Their wages are low ($45 a month); they live five to a shack without plumbing; and they are constantly on strike -- bound up in a struggle between large companies in search of cheap labor and a country struggling to assert stricter labor standards.

"What happens in this part of the world in the next 10 years is important for the rest of the world," says Jason Judd, an American union organizer in Cambodia who appears in PlanetWork II. "The work is coming here. The money is coming here. That means the power is coming here. And if workers don't have any, they're going to suffer mightily."

Also leaning toward the serious side of the global labor debate, is the PlanetWork segment on fair trade coffee. Durst takes us to Waterbury, Vermont, the home of Green Mountain Coffee, an $80 million company that not only trades on Nasdaq but helps Central American farmers make ends meet by offering them a fair price of $1.26 per pound of coffee (rather than the standard price of $0.50 a pound). Thanks to this "fair trade," the show makes clear, Guatemalan coffee farmers can send their kids to school and people in rich countries can do something to ameliorate the international wealth gap: pay more for their coffee.

Generally, PlanetWorks' focus is on these brighter spots of the global economic story. The message of the producers -- The Working Group of Oakland, California -- it seems, is that individual effort and acumen will lead to greater fairness. One segment is devoted to New Balance sneakers, which, unlike Nike, has opted to keep some of its shoe factories in the U.S. rather than set up cost-cutting factories in China. One interviewee, a third-generation shoemaker from Maine, argues that the social-mindedness of Jim Davis, New Balance's CEO, is the only reason he still has a job in his field.

The greatest success of the series, though, is its portrayal of people. The Working Group, which has made seven PBS work-related shows, including "Shift Change," "Working Family Values" and "Honey, We Bought the Company," has done an outstanding job finding people whose daily lives embody some aspect of globalization.

One stellar example is Madhur Singh, a twentysomething Indian who works for a telemarketing firm owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in Bangalore. By day, Madhur is a modern Indian woman, shopping for girlie t-shirts and hanging out with her friends. By night, she is "Jennifer Keating," an American saleswoman ready to sell you business products. Madhur and her colleagues are fantastic at impersonating American accents and idiomatic expressions of every possible region. They even like the dual identity, however virtual, because, as Madhur explains, "It shows how many worlds I can live in."

Also wonderfully illustrative of the weird cultural conditions of globalization is the portrait of Gigi Wong, who vibrates with the energy of four dot-comers about to make their first million. Gigi is the paradigm of a woman who can do it all in the new economy: bring home major bacon, negotiate international deals, be in Singapore in the morning and back the next day for a barbecue with the kids in California. Her husband, however, seems a bit bewildered by his wife's hyper work ethic, especially when she proposes their family relocate to Asia. "Sometimes I wonder why I have to live in a foreign country to see my wife more," he tells the camera. Retorts Gigi: "We have a very good opportunity to maximize our income."

Will Durst ends PlanetWork with the question, "Will we head in a direction that takes us to a wider chasm between people who have and those who don't? Or can we somehow manage to find a place where the best of us comes out?"

The verdict is out, but as the shows convey, globalization is as transformative as the industrial revolution. "Any idea that we can resist the globalization of culture is naïve," says Jean McDonald, a GeekCorps volunteer interviewed three months after working for the only Web firm in Accra. "People can now access any kind of culture, politics, news ... whatever. This is the reality."

PlanetWork 1 & 2 will air between August 31 and September 5. For information about showtimes, go to PBS.org.