Top Secret Addendum to a Report on the Labor Inspection
One must travel,” wrote Montaigne. “Travel makes one modest,” Flaubert added. And Taine took it up a notch: “We travel for a change, not of place, but of ideas.” But what if the opposite were true? In a travel guide to Indochina from 1923, after a page advertising the firm of Ridet & Co., a gunsmith located in the center of Hanoi providing “weapons and munitions for hunting and warfare, all accessories for hunters and tourists, automatic pistols or rifles” (this before any mention of “picturesque Upper Tonkin, abounding in natural curiosities”), we come across a brief dictionary, a conversation manual for vacationers, of which the first rudiments are: “Go find me a rickshaw, go quickly, go quietly, turn right, turn left, turn back, put up the top, put down the top, wait for me a moment, take me to the bank, to the jeweler’s, to the café, to the police station, to the dealership.”This was the basic vocabulary for a French tourist in Indochina.
On June 25, 1928, at the crack of dawn, three austere figures set out from Saigon on a short journey. A wisp of fog hung over the buildings. The car drove quickly. Even with the top up, it was chilly out, and before long the front-seat passenger wrapped himself in a blanket. As it happened, Tholance, Delamarre, and their secretary were hardly your average travelers; they formed the kernel of a new colonial administration and were the very first labor inspectors appointed to French Indochina. Suspicions of ill treatment at a Michelin plantation had made a lot of noise, and after a revolt by the workers they had been assigned to ensure that the paltry regulations serving as a labor code were being followed, ostensibly for the Vietnamese coolies’ protection. Soon the car left the city outskirts for rows of thatched huts. The landscape was beautiful, of an almost aggressive green. The river over-spilled its banks, and behind a narrow strip of land you could glimpse a multitude of small, sparkling patches of water.
Finally, the path plunged into the forest, and the travelers felt both a kind of enchantment and a vague anxiety. On each side of the road was an immobile parade, implacably repeated. They entered an immense forest. But this was no typical forest: neither a wild, overgrown tropical rainforest nor the dark, dense forest of dreams where children get lost. No, this forest was stranger still, perhaps even wilder, and darker. Entering it, the travelers shuddered. It seemed that in this forest, by a curious sorcery, all the trees grew at exactly the same distance from one another. One tree, then another tree, then another and another, as if the forest were composed of a single specimen multiplied ad infinitum.
At night, in the cold hours, men pace steadily from tree to tree, gripping small knives. It takes them five seconds to go several short steps; then they bend down, straighten up, and leave a gash in the tree’s bark: these efforts take a maximum of fifteen seconds. And so, more or less every twenty seconds, each man reaches another tree, and in the next row another man follows him, and over hundreds and hundreds of meters, hundreds of men advance, barefoot and in canvas trousers, lantern in one hand and knife in the other, and slice the bark. Then the tree slowly begins to drip. It looks like milk. But it’s not milk, it’s latex. And every night, each man bleeds roughly eighteen hundred trees; eighteen hundred times the man takes his knife to the bark, eighteen hundred times he makes a notch, cutting off a fine strip about two millimeters thick, eighteen hundred times he must be careful not to touch the heartwood. And as our inspectors cross through the endless plantation in their car, even as they admire how Taylor and Michelin have managed to ward off “the natural idleness” of the Annamite workers via rationally organized labor; even as they stare transfixed at the glacial immensity of the work, marveling at the extent to which this forest, the pitiless organization of this forest, represents an unprecedented struggle against wasted time, they experience a kind of terror.
But even the best regulated system has its failures. And at nine o’clock that morning, about twenty kilometers before their arrival at the plantation office, Labor Inspector Emile Delamarre noticed three young Tonkinese by the side of the road. He was unfortunate enough to lean out, and saw that they were bound together with iron wire. It must have seemed odd to him, incongruous, these three shoeless men tied together, and so he immediately ordered his driver to stop.
The three men were filthy, dressed in rags; they were under a foreman’s supervision. Delamarre got out of the car a little groggily, stumbled in the mud, and advanced with difficulty toward the prisoners. Once he’d reached them, he looked for a moment at the foreman, who, at the sight of Delamarre’s expensive suit, doffed his hat.
The air was already warm and humid. Delamarre noticed that the prisoners were covered in scabies. At a glance, he saw that the metal wire was digging into their wrists, and he decided to question them directly, in Vietnamese. After a banal exchange of words and some hesitation, one of them said he had tried to escape. He was what they called a deserter: he had run away from the plantation under cover of darkness but had just been recaptured. Delamarre no doubt found the punishment disproportionate, but it wasn’t really his purview. He contented himself with a curt remark to the foreman, then turned around, scraped his soles on the roadside, and got back into the car. “To the plantation,” he ordered.
During the rest of the trip, he tried to forget that painful scene, and thank God, when they arrived at the plantation they were treated to a warm welcome. After a cursory glimpse of the facilities, they were introduced to the director of the Michelin establishments in Cochinchina, Monsieur Alpha, accompanied by the plantation manager, Monsieur Traiaire, and several European employees. The group of them made a more extensive tour: the coolie housing, tiny garden plots, showers, infirmary, quartermaster’s stores, water tower. The inspectors viewed the new equipment with admiration. As they emerged from the structures, Delamarre, seizing on a moment alone with the director, inquired about the stocks he’d noticed at the beginning of their visit, near the housing. Monsieur Alpha looked uncomfortably surprised; he turned to his aide, Monsieur Triaire, and asked for an explanation.
“I built that for deserters,” Triaire said, a bit sheepishly. “We don’t keep them longer than one night, and only attached by one foot!”
“Are there other stocks on the plantation?” Delamarre asked.
“Not a one,” Triaire answered, categorically.
The visit continued. Now they were at the kitchens; they were to get a complete tour of the premises. Triaire began by vaunting the modern layout, the cleanliness. Suddenly, as they passed a closed door, Delamarre asked what was behind it. The other man answered with a shrug, probably a closet, he didn’t have the keys. As Delamarre insisted on entering, Triaire went off to find them. Finally, the supervisor returned, breathless, and opened the door. The room was empty of people, but at the back were stocks with nine foot-holes.
The director turned sharply to Triaire and demanded an explanation. Triaire stammered; the director raised his voice. But, just as in the theater a little farce is played out in the foreground that is contradicted by something in the background, they suddenly heard moans coming from the adjacent room. Again the door was locked, again they’d have to fetch the keys. On the strength of his authority, the labor inspector furiously ordered them to break the door down. And lo and behold, it suddenly opened, they had miraculously found the keys, what a scatterbrain that Triaire is! But instead of defusing the situation, this strange blunder only heightened an obscure fear that had slowly been permeating the labor inspectors. And as the door opens—they can feel it fully now—and the moans grow louder, they enter another world.
A man is lying on his back, spent, exhausted, both feet bound, half-naked. The man is writhing on the floor, trying desperately to cover his genitals with a filthy rag that he clutches against him as best he can. Then, as the small group stands there, stunned by what they have just discovered, Triaire rushes up and, ripping away the rag that the poor man was holding to his trembling, emaciated body, cries: “Let’s hope he hasn’t hurt himself!” The remark is incongruous, and the labor inspector doesn’t immediately understand what he meant. Is Triaire suggesting that the man has been bound like this for his own good ?
The coolie was now almost naked, for all to see. It was a horrific scene. They freed him from his shackles, stood him up, and the guards roughly examined every inch of his body, as if the man had tried to kill himself or was concealing something. The room was poorly lit, sordid. The man was atrociously thin. He could barely stand. He was terrified.
The director reprimanded Triaire. “What the hell is going on here!” he cried. “I don’t know, sir,” Triaire repeated over and over, shouting in turn at a guard to fetch an orderly now. They had to wait. The wait was endless. The Vietnamese man was skeletal, moribund, forced to remain standing amid the directors and the two strangers whose language he didn’t speak. He swayed, and the Frenchmen fell silent. Now and then, a drop of rain fell heavily on the sheet metal roof. A gust of cool air blew through the room. And Triaire repeated as if to himself, “I don’t understand.”
Finally the orderly arrived. Perhaps he thought to reassure the inspectors by stating that he was “treating a dysentery case.” But this surprising declaration only made the atmosphere more tense. Delamarre thought, “And this is how you cure him, by chaining him half-naked to a post?” He ordered in a cold voice, “Strip this man down completely!” Triaire made a sign to the two guards, the coolie recoiled in fear, but he was too weak to resist. They removed his undershirt. The man was now entirely naked, as we will be one day before our judges. He stood with his head bowed; he looked dead. Inspector Delamarre approached the man slowly, very slowly, and walked around him. He motioned for his colleague to come closer: “I would like you to note that this man’s back bears distinct traces of six cane blows.”
The next day, Delamarre went to the other Michelin plantation, where several suicides by hanging had recently been reported. The Michelin firm was wondering about “the reasons for this epidemic of suicides,” as the labor inspector’s report put it. From the list he’d been given, these suicides had occurred with alarming frequency. Pham-thi-Nhi, by hanging on May 19; Pham-van-Ap, by hanging on May 21; Ta-dinh-Tri, by hanging the same day; Lê-ba-Hanh, by hanging on the 24th; Dô-thê-Tuât, by hanging on June 10; Nguyên-Sang, by hanging on June 13; Tran-Cuc, by hanging that very morning. In all, seven suicides in one month.
During his tour, the inspector discovers deep contusions on the coolies; and when he questions them, out comes a flood of stories of humiliation and terror; and despite the denials, Delamarre comes upon a whole bundle of canes in a closet; and as usual, the plantation director knows nothing about it; and as usual, he seems very afflicted, declares that if only he’d known about certain excesses, if only he’d put a stop to them sooner by transferring an overly zealous young assistant, he could never have imagined such outbursts; and as usual, the director expresses his profound regret; and as usual, these abuses are chalked up to exceptions, blunders, the cruelty of a guard, the sadism of a subaltern. The inspector draws up a scrupulous report, and the administration formulates a few recommendations. They result in not one single reform or indictment. That year, the Michelin firm realizes a record profit of 93 million francs.
Several years earlier, André Michelin had made the acquaintance of Frederick Winslow Taylor on the occasion of a luncheon held in the latter’s honor at the Prunier restaurant in Paris. Over dessert, Taylor, who according to Michelin’s account was “modesty itself,” had shyly spelled out for them the basic tenets of his method. But to better understand André Michelin’s admiration for Taylor’s theories; to truly experience the dread the labor inspectors felt as their car rolled at daybreak past that geometric forest, where all the trees were planted at equal intervals so that each coolie could always take the same number of steps at the same cadence; to fully grasp what is meant by “Taylor’s modesty,” the quality Michelin saw in him, let us quote this small excerpt from Frederick W. Taylor’s Shop Management, in which he debuted his “principles of scientific management”: “A man with only the intelligence of an average laborer can be taught to do the most difficult and delicate work if it is repeated enough times; and his lower mental caliber renders him more fit than the mechanic to stand the monotony of repetition.”
Thus, according to Taylor, Pham-thi-Nhi, ID number 2762, who hanged himself on May 19, 1928, at the plantation at Dau-tieng, was nothing other than a man with only the intelligence of an average laborer taught to do the most repetitive work; it appears, however, that despite his lower mental caliber, he couldn’t abide the monotony of repetition. And Pham-van-Ap, ID number 1309, who hanged himself on May 21, 1928, was also nothing other than a man with only the intelligence of an average laborer taught to do the most repetitive work; and yet he, too, was apparently unable to withstand the monotony of repetition. That same year, 30 percent of the workmen died on the plantation, more than three hundred people. Delamarre again saw the thin wrists, gashed by iron wire, of the three haggard captives, those deserters with vacant eyes whom he had encountered at dawn. He felt ashamed. The truth was there, plain as day. What difference did their miserable labor contract make, when it could be used to coerce them like that? Getting back on the road that evening, Inspector Delamarre understood that by running away from the plantation, these men were only trying to save their skins.