Oompa Loompa Proletariat

by Shaun Richman

In the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Willy Wonka employs in his factory Oompa Loompas, strange little orange men who seemingly work for free. The Oompa Loompas, who sing while they work, seem to be charged with much manual labor.

They mix the chocolate and other confections, carry out Wonka’s orders, manually power his personal yacht and otherwise do his bidding-all at the beck and call of his whistle. After seeing just one minute of the movie with the Oompa Loompas on the screen, one obsesses about this work arrangement. Are these Oompa Loompas slaves, or indentured servants? Are they salaried employees? Is this some Stalinist work camp?

Wonka answers this question himself early on when several visitors on a tour of his factory raise these troubling issues. The Oompa Loompas, he explains, come from a far off place called “Lumpaland”, where, because of their diminutive size, they were in constant danger of being gobbled up by assorted “fierce creatures.” And so, in what he would have us believe was an altruistic gesture, he “freed” them from their native land and had them brought to his factory in the “greatest of secrecy,” where they could live in “peace and safety”...and become his new source of labor.

Were the pint-sized immigrants scabs? It is explained earlier in the movie that years ago Wonka had fired all of his employees, charging them with industrial espionage; trading secrets with his chief competitor, Slugworth, Inc. Wonka closed his doors and ceased production. Three years later, the factory began production again, but, mysteriously to the public, without hiring workers and without opening its doors. At this point, it seems clear that Wonka brought in the Oompa Loompas to solve his labor problems, and kept his doors closed to keep nosy government investigators out in order to keep his little sweat shop running.

The Oompa Loompas certainly seem to be property. In fact, one of the guests on the tour of the plant, bratty Veruca Salt, demands that her father buy her one. He complies and actually haggles with Wonka to purchase one of the little orange men. But Willy Wonka strangely refuses! Is this mere greed, a desire to keep all the hard working Oompa Loompas to himself? The answer comes shortly when Wonka takes his guests to his top secret laboratory. On the door is a large sign, clearly stating, “Top Secret: No Unauthorized Oompa Loompas Allowed Inside.” Behind the door toil dozens of Oompa Loompas. Clearly not your average slaves, they’re actually busy mixing and inventing new candies! These Oompa Loompas are skilled artisans, setting their own hours and work loads.

Evil slave-driver?

How is it that Wonka trusts the Oompa Loompas with such trade secrets as the formula of the “Everlasting Gobstopper,” but fired his human workers out of mistrust. Wonka openly fears that Slugworth will learn his secret formulas. Either international patent and copyright laws don’t exist here, or they don’t apply to these candies. (A third possibility that Wonka never thought to patent his creations seems too far-fetched.) In any event, the result is clear: in order to maintain the massive rent on his products, the kind of rent that makes new products and marketing schemes t.v. news and causes panics in candy stores when the supply “Scrum Diddlyumptious” bars has run out, Wonka must rely on secrecy. He shows that he will go to any length to maintain secrecy. He has already displaced hundreds of factory workers. He uses fear and intimidation on his guests on the tour, as well as

the general public. And yet he trusts the Oompa Loompas with his trade secrets.

Abused worker?

This was doubtless part of his arrangement with the Oompa Loompas when he brought them to work for him. Freedom from fierce creatures in exchange for labor. Labor in exchange for housing. And since the Oompa Loompas remain within the Wonka factory and on the Wonka property at all times, there was no way they could trade secrets with the enemy. Wonka, a true capitalist, had fully exploited the immigrant workers!

Or had he? There is a clear dichotomy between the unskilled Oompa Loompas who mix the candy, power Wonka’s yacht and otherwise toil away, and the skilled artisan Oompa Loompas who invent the candy, set their own hours and have the run of the place. These Oompa Loompas are clearly the intellectual superiors of the unskilled variety. Surely, they must appreciate their own situation. They hold in their minds and hands the very information that could ruin Wonka. If they were displeased with the pay or treatment they got from him, they could easily find work elsewhere. Slugworth would, in Wonka’s own words, “give his false teeth” to learn Wonka’s trade secrets, as well as double the pay and benefits of the Oompa Loompas who could be the key to a greater market share.

It would seem that these Oompa Loompas had come to appreciate their fortunate situation and made a deal with Wonka, a little “partnership between labor and capital” if you will. And all they had to do was sell out their brother workers, the unskilled Oompa Loompas to achieve it. So, the skilled Oompa Loompas got the best pay, hours, and, one would assume, choice lodging, while the unskilled variety got the shaft.

And yet, they seem so happy. They actually sing while they work. They sing, in fact, about how great it is to work for Wonka and how everyone should be like the “Oompa Loompa doopity doo.” (Okay, they’re not the best songwriters in the world.) This is what gave the impression at first that Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory was a Stalinist work camp, that the workers believe their exploitation to be freedom. The Oompa Loompa’s songs could be characterized as agit-prop.

It isn’t Stalinist propaganda, but something very similar. The workers are singing about labor’s goals being the same as management’s. That’s how Wonka and the skilled Oompa Loompas got them to go along with the agreement! You’re job security depends on the success of this company, they must have been told. Sacrifices had to be made for profits. After all, if the company made no profits, the Oompa Loompas would be out of a job, and thrown back to Lumpaland. Now that’s motivation!

There seems to be one thing missing from this whole scenario. I used the term “brother worker” intentionally. All the Oompa Loompas we see in the film are males. Discounting the possibility that Oompa Loompas are radically different from us anatomically, there must be female Oompa Loompas. Where are they? It may be safe to assume that this is the final part of the arrangement between Wonka and the Oompa Loompa overseers. It is, by this point, clear that they are salaried workers, paid, albeit unequally, in food, shelter, clothing and protection. These payments for their work is not only for them, but their families. Wonka only puts the adult males to work. The women and children do not have to work.

Now, let’s put on our econimist hats and put this little arrangement into perspective. From the little we see of the world outside the Factory, using Charlie (who doesn’t seem to have a last name) and his family as an example of the typical family, women and children had to work as well. Charlie has a paper route, and his mother took in laundry. These two incomes had to provide for six people: Charlie, his mother, and four bedridden grandparents. (All four in the same bed. Kinky.) There is no father evident in this family. He presumably had to leave town when Wonka closed his factory and the job market soured. But, assuming that the father was in the picture three years prior and worked at the Wonka factory, his earnings would not have to provide for seven people alone. That burden was shared with his wife and son. So, previously, Wonka was paying his human workers enough money necessary to produce and reproduce just themselves for another day of labor. Given the population density of this area and its presumed saturation of the job market, the existence of a labor union is doubtful, and the wages doubtlessly depressed, so Wonka could easily pay his workers that little. Let’s use as the sum of the wages paid ten Wonka dollars per worker per day. This labor afforded Wonka a commanding share of the chocolate market, however, it was beginning to cost him his rent. So Wonka downsized his entire workforce.

Now, with the Oompa Loompas employed as labor, Wonka had to pay enough money to produce and reproduce each Oompa Loompa and his family. Assuming a typical Oompa Loompa family of husband, wife and 2.3 children, and assuming that an Oompa Loompa, being half the size of a human worker needs only half the food, shelter and clothing, Wonka would be paying each Oompa Loompa 21 and a half Wonka dollars per day, or, its equivalent in food, shelter and clothing. This is also assuming that Wonka employed an equivalent number of Oompa Loompas as humans. For this increase of $11.50W per worker per day, Wonka gets serious increases in productivity.

For the human worker, Wonka got ten hours work for $10W pay. This is assuming that Wonka is a fairly liberal employer in a rather Dickensian atmosphere. Given that the Oompa Loompa worker lives where he works, and also given that the Oompa Loompa sees a personal stake in the success of the company, he obviously works harder and longer than the human worker. At this point, any speculation as to the amount of the increase in productivity would go way beyond merely bordering on absurdity, but sufficed to say, it would be substantial. And it would give Wonka a permanent edge over competitor Slugworth, whose human workers could never keep up.

The other edge it would give Wonka is the aforementioned rent. With workers that can not only be counted on to create new candies but to keep the formulas for said candies top secret, Wonka can retain his huge market share and status as a popular icon of confectionery capitalism, and leave Slugworth permanently in a distant second. The benefits to Wonka are obvious.

For the Oompa Loompas, they get the leave a country where they would have died. For the Oompa Loompas in charge, it means freedom, respect and the necessities of life for them and their families. The unskilled Oompa Loompas are duped into believing that this labor is gratitude and payment for their very lives and the lives of their families. With that artificial outlook, it’s easy to see why they would be so happy. Maybe Oompa Loompa ignorance is bliss.

Rent \Rent\, n. (Polit. Econ.)
(a) That portion of the produce of the earth paid to the
landlord for the use of the ``original and indestructible
powers of the soil;'' the excess of the return from a
given piece of cultivated land over that from land of
equal area at the ``margin of cultivation.'' Called also
{economic, or Ricardian, rent}. Economic rent is due
partly to differences of productivity, but chiefly to
advantages of location; it is equivalent to ordinary or
commercial rent less interest on improvements, and
nearly equivalent to ground rent.
(b) Loosely, a return or profit from a differential advantage
for production, as in case of income or earnings due to
rare natural gifts creating a natural monopoly.

Return to Vision? Nary!