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2019-09-16 11:28:04

Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, a key character in the Netflix documentary “American Factory,” has lashed out at labor unions, saying such groups only disrupt production.

“As long as there are unions in America, factories (there) will not improve their efficiency,” Cao said Monday in an interview with The Beijing News, weeks after the documentary’s release. “If a factory can do without a union, it’s better not to have one.”

Cao’s comments shed light on an important labor issue that became a source of tension between employees and managers at the Chinese company he owns when it expanded into the American Midwest. In 2014, Cao’s Fuyao Group repurposed the former site of a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, transforming it into a glassmaking factory.

The documentary tells the story of a Chinese company injecting money into a flagging local economy by creating over 2,000 jobs. Through a human-centric lens, it examines the different work cultures to which local and Chinese staff are accustomed. When some of the American workers move to unionize, Fuyao mobilizes to crush the initiative.

Cao told The Beijing News that productivity directly correlates with employee welfare and claimed that Fuyao’s welfare scheme had led to “stability” within the company, as well as “loyalty” and a “good mental state” among staff, without elaborating on the nature of the welfare scheme.

“Once a factory has a union, it will have to invest time and legal resources in it,” Cao said. “There’s not one thing we can decide — everything has to go through the union.”

Describing labor unions as the biggest cultural difference Chinese businesses face when they expand into Europe or North America, Cao said he would rather incur losses than be “messed around” by unions. “Mental distress is worse than financial loss,” he said.

The 73-year-old billionaire also complained that some of the scenes in the documentary “vilified” his company. Addressing backlash over the depiction of some of his American employees working extended hours at the Ohio factory, Cao said such work schedules were common in China.

“Actually, many civil servants and office employees who work in (Chinese) cities only get to return to their homes twice a year, and it’s the same throughout China,” Cao said. “Americans cannot understand this — it’s a cultural difference.”

“American Factory” was released Aug. 21 on Netflix, in association with Higher Ground Productions, a company backed by Barack and Michelle Obama, the former U.S. president and first lady. Even without an official distributor in China, the film has been generating buzz on the country’s social media, with a related hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo viewed over 28 million times by Monday evening.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Cao Dewang (center) tours a Fuyao glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, U.S., Sept. 29, 2016. Andrew Spear for The Washington Post/VCG)