Monday, December 25, 2006


Went to my parents' house for Christmas today and one of the first things we talked about was their seemingly malfunctioning Apex DVD player. My mother said she had gotten it 3 or so months ago for $35.

I took a look at it, power cycled it, tried to get it to read DVDs, etc.--all to no avail. My father asked whether one takes something like that to get fixed or just gets another one--knowing the answer, of course, is to simply get another player. He lamented that simply throwing out a machine like that to replace it just seemed like an "ugly American" thing to do.


I mentioned something about the lasers inside the players, and my dad marvelled at the fact that the advanced technology in such a machine could be sold for such a cheap price. I suggested that such a situation was possible because of cheap overseas labor, with words to this effect: "Well, they're so cheap because they're made by Chinese workers who get 2 cents a day or something like that."

My father found that highly unlikely. He said that with all the capitalistic reforms that are being made in China, and the footage one sees in the news with Chinese cities being overrun with cars, Chinese workers are surely not being ripped off. He said that China will eventually go the way of Japan--start off making cheap crap and then become the world leader in manufactured goods at which time Chinese workers will be paid like kings.

How I handled it--not very well

I didn't vocalize my disagreement with everything he said for a couple reasons. One, I was full of food from my imperialistic, ugly American, completely commercialized and commodified holiday celebration and therefore somewhat addled and not looking for much of an intellectual give-and-take. Two, his citation of video footage of lots of cars on Chinese streets threw me off.

I mean, I know that Chinese workers work cheap. That's why everything comes from China--that's why Wal-Mart's biggest supplier is China, as it says in this article:

Nevertheless,...China is Wal-Mart's most important supplier in the world. The overseas procurement home office in Shenzhen, a city of South China's Guangdong Province, has played a key role in the firm's global purchasing business.

Wal-Mart shifted its overseas procurement centre from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in February 2002 to better serve the purchasing and exporting business.

"If Wal-Mart were an individual economy, it would rank as China's eighth-biggest trading partner, ahead of Russia, Australia and Canada," Xu said.

So I just kinda let it go, disappointed in myself that I didn't speak up more because of a lack of confidence in my grasp of the facts. But I came home and Googled some stuff and found stories like the following about the state of Chinese labor:

China Labor Watch said the workers are forced to labor 11 hours a day, six days a week, with "total overtime of up to 70 hours a month." Chinese "law" says employees work a 40-hour week, with overtime limited to 36 hours a month. Workers at the plant, irrespective of reality, get 574 yuan or $72 a month.

Subsistence wages have fueled a staggering increase in Chinese toy imports, along with China's continued tricks to undervalue its currency.
Buffalo News 12/18/06 by William Turner

Here's another, from the AP:

MGA Entertainment Inc.'s Bratz dolls are made at a factory in southern China where workers are obliged to toil as many as 94 hours a week, labor rights advocates alleged in a report.

The report by U.S.-based China Labor Watch and the National Labor Committee details allegations of harsh working conditions, especially during peak delivery months, and of violations of Chinese laws that give workers the right to work-injury and health insurance.

And here's more on the Bratz and profit-over-people situation:

Workers are paid the equivalent of 17 US cents for each doll, the report said, while the dolls retail for $16 apiece or more in the US.

The report contains allegations similar to those aimed at many Chinese factories producing big brand products for export. They include forcing workers to stay on the job to meet quotas, required overtime exceeding the legal maximum of 36 hours a month, and the denial of paid sick leave and other benefits...

Last year the CLW reported on conditions inside the Huangwu No 2 Toy Factory in Dongguan City. The factory makes toys for Wal-Mart and, according to the CLW, there were few safety precautions for any of the workers, who are working up to 15 hours a day in peak season.

Some passed out from exhaustion after spraying 1,115 small toys per hour. That’s one toy every 3.23 seconds.

And then, in the same article, the CEO of Timberland shoes spells out the horrible, ultimately self-defeating situation:

Recently I interviewed Jeff Swartz, chief executive of Timberland, who has done more than most to ensure his Chinese contractors do not abuse their workers. Timberland strictly monitors its factories and will not allow workers to put in more than 60 hours a week.

In an ideal world, he said, he would not manufacture in China at all, but the low prices he can get there mean he can’t afford not to. The most he could hope for at the moment was to be “the good plantation owner,” he said.

I know better than to keep my mouth shut, but it's my dad--I don't want to fight with him. But I fear that most people feel like he does--that Wal-Mart is good for Americans and that the cheap laborers abroad are happy to have the work and the pittance they earn. He even said that he and my mother are a "Wal-Mart family."

Not blameless

I guess another reason I didn't speak up is that I'm not blameless. I shop at Wal-Mart. I like to get quality products for the least money possible. I don't know the way to rectify this lopsided situation that hurts the wages of both overseas and domestic workers. There has to be some sort of either legal or moral (or both) turning away from the "profit uber alles" mentality of both the corporation and the public. But I don't know how to make that happen.

But I do know that Chinese labor is cheap and not afforded the same (eroding) protections we supposedly have here. And saying so with confidence, even to my family which I love, is one infinitesimally tiny way to start changing perceptions. I guess...

1 comment:

Alfred T. said...

I can sympathize with you fully on this entry. Many times, I end up supporting the type of irresponsible business/practices that indirectly are causing so many socio-economic powers.

My current goal in life is to procure some funds and gtfo of NorthAm (What I want to do with this money is another thing.) But to get these funds as ethically as I can, I work at a job that is not morally repugnant. Unfortunately, there are not that many options for a job that actually does not harm anyone anywhere. The current job I have is one of these rare jobs but does not pay so well. I could make a killing being a salesman, but I (stupidly and naively) made a unshakable geas to myself never to tell any sort of lie or twist the truth.

So in order for me to save up enough money with my humble income, I end up shopping at WalMart etc., places with unethical practices. This bothers me to no end and I fully do not believe that the means justify the ends. However, I still shop at Wal Mart and I probably will in the near future.

The reason is that Capitalism and North American consumerism culture has become a culture of financial enslavement. You only have the freedom to earn income, spend income and earn more income.

It is truly sad that some days I find that I had more choices in how I live my life in the oppressive state of Burma, than in the vaunted democracy of Canada. I feel that some days, the only freedom I have is to make money, spend it on living expenses and wait to grow old, grow tired and finally die.

We as a species are caught in this same vicious cycle in one form or another. Our civilization has not advanced for several hundred years. Do not mistake expansion with advancement. We need the much cliched "revolution of the mind" and change the very fundamentals of what motivates us to live.