FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Transition From the Sweatshop of the World

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:
Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail