Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Made In China - What's Behind The Label

When I was away in London last week, I did some poking around in the London stores. Just like in America, just about everything in the stores, such as Marks and Spencer, was "Made In China". I have blogged about this before, but please read on.

In the long run, free trade is good. I really don't have a problem with it, because if we are trading partners with another country then most likely we aren't fighting with them. Paying jobs ultimately raise the standard of living for everyone. That's a good thing. What is disturbing to me about trade with China is exemplified by an editorial that I read in the Independent. Aside from my sense that we are fueling the Chinese military with an influx of foreign money, this article talks about how the term "gulaosi" has emerged - and it is used to describe the men and women who are literally being worked to death producing clothes, electronics and toys for you and me, under this Communist regime.

While I understand that these poor people now at least have a job and can make some money (emphasis on the word some), they are being subjected to slave-like conditions. It makes the story behind the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America seem so whiney and irrelevant. People are literally dying of exhaustion, and many lose fingers and other body parts in machinery. That's not good.

Interestingly, some new Chinese reforms have been proposed. Laws that would permit people to join trade unions and give them the right to a written contract. Workers would have the right to a severance payment and the right to change jobs freely. Where previously China's labor rules were diffuse, dispersed and barely enforced, these new laws might be drawn together and backed with big fines.
The dissident-killing Chinese Communist Party didn't propose these change out of a sudden flush of benevolence. They did it because the Chinese people have in increasing numbers been refusing to be tethered serfs for the benefit of Western corporations. Last year, there were 300,000 illegal industrial actions in China, a huge spate of "factory kidnappings" of managers, and more than 85,000 protests.

The Chinese people were showing they did not want to leap from a Maoist gulag to a market-fundamentalists' sweatshop. They demanded a sensible compromise: strong trade and markets to generate wealth, matched by strong trade unions to stop markets devouring them. They want an end to grinding poverty, but one that doesn't kill them as they get there.
Interestingly enough too, is that there is apparently something in the way of these reforms. Lobbyists representing Western corporations with factories in China have gone to Beijing to cajole and threaten the dictatorship into abandoning these new workers' protections!
The American Chamber of Commerce - representing Microsoft, Nike, Ford, Dell and others - listed 42 pages of objections. The laws were "unaffordable" and "dangerous", they declared. The European Chamber of Commerce backed them up.
The article recalls a similar lobbying action occurred when Bill Clinton's efforts to decree that trade with China could only grow if China in tandem increased its respect for human rights. That decree really upset American business executives who then subjected Clinton to massive lobbying efforts which protested that decree - so Clinton ditched that executive order after a year.

The article goes on to say this about recent lobbying efforts to prevent the new laws:
Their lobbying seems to have paid off. The (unelected) Chinese National People's Congress is due to vote on the new labor laws in the next month or so, but the proposals have already been massively watered down.

Scott Slipy, the director of human resources for Microsoft in China, bragged to BusinessWeek, "We have enough investment at stake that we can usually get someone to listen to us if we are passionate about an issue."

Some Western corporations are explicitly seeking a China where a tiny number of extremely rich people are free to organize, but the vast majority of poor people are physically prevented from doing so by the state.

The American and European campaigns showing that we are not all willing to accept their serfdom and profit from it have already had successes. The European Chamber of Commerce has been shamed into retracting its initial opposition to the laws. After lobbying from trade unions and human rights organisations, Nike has now denounced the position of the American Chambers of Commerce to which it belongs and backed the law. The remaining Wal-Martian corporations need to be damned one by one - and subject to legal sanctions - until they relent and accept the rights of Chinese workers.
As China brings itself more and more into the realm of Capitalism, it will find itself dealing with these pressures. I am all for Capitalism and the Free Market, but people need to have decent working conditions and the freedom to choose where they wish to work. Extreme Slavery and Exploitation should have no place in the production of goods and services.

2 comments:

Lisa Giebitz said...

Americans are so used to cheap, throw-away abundance, we don't even stop to think of the millions of impoverished people who make it possible.

Shame on those American corporations? They know that if the prices of their goods rise, they'll catch crap from their American consumers.

Is there an answer that will please everyone? I don't think so.

Dana said...

I don't know that conditions in China are all that much better, but I've read that quite a few North Korean products end up on our shelves with a "made in china" sticker.

Slave labor would be better...at least slaves are considered property and thus have some value to the owner. In N. Korea, humans in these labor camps are merely disposable parts of their state-run machine.