FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Transition From the Sweatshop of the World

by BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN

For many the Retraction of the Apple story by This American Life turned Apple from a labor abuser into a corporation with best practices. Others saw this as a proof of yet another corporate cover-up and PR campaign by Apple. Meanwhile, American involvement in workplace abuses in China remains under a thick veil of ambiguity for the public.

China defies stereotypes.

In the past 30 years, China helped create an economic model that relied on low wages and labor standards, and militarized production units. That model is however in transition now. Workplace practices and labor rights are improving, although unevenly and slowly. Chinese factories and their labor standards are diverse and evolving. China has production units with 19th century labor practices, and modern factories like Foxconn that pay better wages, and have more acceptable living conditions for their workers. Human rights violations of workers however continue in different degrees in the worst, and the best factories.

Wages have sharply increased in recent years. In Shenzhen, wages more than tripled from an average of $70 a month in 2005, to $240 in 2012. Despite improvements in wages, the militaristic organization of workplaces remains even in the most modern enterprises.

In the early days of economic reform, some suppliers of large American firms in Shenzhen and surrounding cities had private jails on the factory compound. Detaining the trouble makers and physically abusing them was common. There were rare extreme cases.
Militant workers disappeared. A strike leader was found dead with a bullet in his head on the roof of a Taiwanese shoe factory supplying a major American brand in the mid 1990s.
Years later, in Shenzhen, a manager of the factory from that time told me the story off the record. “This is very dangerous,” he said.

Such cases of extreme violence are no longer practiced, but fear reigns even in factories supplying American brands. Factory prisons have all but disappeared. Strike leaders and militant workers are not detained. They are penalized and fired routinely. “This is everyone’s secret. The Hong Kong people know it. The Taiwanese know it. The Mainland Chinese know it. The only people who pretend not to know it are the American buyers,” the manager told me.

The owner of a medium-size chemical company supplying a leading American retailer explained how he dealt with a potential strike in 2005. He asked his workers to appoint representatives to negotiate with him. Four workers stepped forward. He fired all four the next day. There was no strike. The work stoppage would have prevented him from getting his shipment ready for the U.S market. “I get charged for late delivery,” he said.

While China’s labor practices improve, the pressure to deliver on time remains inescapable for most subcontractors. With the option to shop around and contract with the most reliable and cheapest supplier, the American buyers demand uninterrupted and on time delivery. Late delivery is costly to the subcontractors. American buyers make the local producer pay for the air freight if they are late in their delivery, an employee of a Chinese
trading company told me.

The demand for timely and fast delivery is more acute for those supplying major brands like Apple. The maddening race to meet delivery deadlines for iPhones, iPads, and similar products puts Foxconn workers under insufferable stress. The spate of workers’ suicides in the past couple of years is revealing. Foxconn responded by installing safety nets in some of its establishments in Shenzhen. It recently increased the wage of some of
its workers to $400 a month, more than $100 above the government-set minimum in Shenzhen. The nets prevent death, but do not remove the underlying causes of the suicide attempts. Higher wages matter a lot, but they don’t change the militaristic management style that has been pushing workers to the edge.

“A factory needs discipline. It would seize to exist otherwise,” the owner of the chemical company told me. For this, he relied on factory guards. They maintained order, and gave a “good beating” to those workers who stole from others and caused problems. I told him that the thieves are handed over to the police in the United States.” In China, we beat them up first, and then give them to the police,” he said laughing.

These practices are also changing, most visibly in large export-processing enterprises. The rising confidence of the Chinese workers and sporadic job actions has put Beijing on alert. Eager to avoid social instability, and hoping to transform the international image of China as the sweatshop of the world, the government has been supporting legislation to improve labor conditions. Low-wage export-processing industrialization is slowly giving way to higher value added exports, and the development of an expanding domestic market and a middle class society. Improving workplace practices and labor standards is integral to this process. The Chinese economic transition is in transition.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West and the forthcoming The Accidental Capitalist: A People’s Story of the New China (March 2012). He can be reached at behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS’s Losses in Syria and Iraq Will Make It Difficult to Recruit
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer Bernie Morphs Into Public Option Dean
Gregory Barrett
Can Democracy Save Us?
Dave Lindorff
Budget Goes Military
John Heid
Disappeared on the Border: “Chase and Scatter” — to Death
Mark Weisbrot
The Troubling Financial Activities of an Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate
Robert Fisk
As ISIS’s Caliphate Shrinks, Syrian Anger Grows
Michael J. Sainato
Democratic Party Continues Shunning Popular Sanders Surrogates
Paul Bentley
Nazi Heritage: the Strange Saga of Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian Grandfather
Christopher Ketcham
Buddhism in the Storm
Thomas Barker
Platitudes in the Wake of London’s Terror Attack
Mike Hastie
Insane Truths: a Vietnam Vet on “Apocalypse Now, Redux”
Binoy Kampmark
Cyclone Watch in Australia
Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail