Exploitation of China's Workers

There is no doubt that China has a true competitive advantage in the global economy, but the question is at what cost does this come? This competitive advantage benefits other consumerist countries like the United States, in which one estimate claims “products made in China have saved the average American family $500 a year.” (Harney 2) With the China Price, China’s “share (of the world’s manufacturing output by value added) had grown to 12.1 percent, making China the world’s third-largest producer after America and Japan.” (Harney 4)

So how does China achieve this competitive advantage? It achieves it by the exploitation of their workers. While these workers continue to slave away in harsh conditions and face physical costs, their plight remains unknown by many consumers which benefit from their hardships. Not only is the treatment of Chinese workers unethical, but it is also imperative that consumer and foreign corporations alike understand the roles they play in perpetuating these conditions.

Who belongs to the group of Chinese workers that continually face unbearable hardships? The largest group exploited workers is migrant workers, which is made up of men, children, but mostly women. But it is not only the migrant workers that are facing this plight. Anita Chan, author of China’s Workers Under Assault, discusses these other workers facing poor conditions. Chan explains that “For many formerly privileged workers in the state-owned industrial sector, working conditions, benefits and job security have declined precipitously over the past fifteen years.” (Chan 13) No matter who belongs to this group of mistreated workers they all face similar harsh conditions within their respective factories. Workers work for extremely low wages, often for a hundred hours a week, all the while receiving poor benefits.

These low wages are commonly below the minimum wage which the Chinese government set in the Labor Law. In fact “In 1997, for a forty-four-hour week, the minimum monthly wage was set at 420 Yuan (U.S. $54.00) for the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, 290 Yuan for Beijing, and 315 Yuan for Shanghai.” (Chan 11) Not only is the minimum wage unreasonably low for the high cost of living in these Chinese cities, but it is even worse that many manufacturers do not even comply with it. Much like other so called rights that are protected under the Labor Law, this one is rarely followed. The reasons that many businesses are able to get away with the violation of the Labor Laws will be discussed later.

The low wages paid to workers is not the only mistreatment these workers face. As discussed in numerous documentaries, articles, and first hand accounts the list of mistreatments go on and on. Many workers work for about a month only to get one to three days off. Within these ongoing months of work they face an austere system of discipline and punishment, where fines are often and unreasonable. Fines cause deductions in the pay workers receive at the end of the month and they can be earned anywhere from breaking factory rules to taking too many bathroom breaks.

“But the penalties can also be for behavior not related to production: fines for talking and laughing at work, for littering outside work hours, for forgetting to turn off lights, untidy dormitories, and so on.” (Chan 12) Another reason worker’s pay can be reduced even further is if they have just started. Many factory owners keep the first one or two month’s pay of each worker as a deposit on that worker. This practice is used in order to deter workers from leaving or quitting. Not only is the pay unreasonably low and the hours long, but the living situation of the workers are often cramped and unsanitary.

These poor living conditions are illustrated in the documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China. In this Michael Redmond documentary a close look is taken at the Tai Kuen Bead Factory which makes beads for Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. In this factory most of the workers are women and they all live in dorms. In these dorms there are two people to a bed, totaling ten to a room in their 20 by 24 foot dorm room. Ten people to a room is not uncommon at all, in fact there are usually many more people to a room. With all these workers living in close quarters with very little running water and areas to bathe it is not shocking that occupational disease spreads quickly through factories.

High rates of occupational disease and poor health are one of the many dangers faced by workers. Of those Chinese workers migrant workers are particularly susceptible since they are often forced to do the more dirty and dangerous jobs that others are unwilling to do, which often do not comply with national Labor Laws. In one estimate it is said that “some 90 percent of victims of occupational disease in China are believed to be migrants.”

(Harney 65) As also discussed by Harney, the bosses of the factories usually fail to tell the workers of the risks associated working for the factory whether it be the spread of disease started in the dormitories or the lethal or extreme chemical content of some of the substances they are continually surrounded by. Not only is the failure to notify these workers of the dangers illegal, but the bosses also behave in unethical conduct when it comes to the medical records of their workers.

According to Chinese Labor Laws, factories should keep records of their workers health from before, during, and after their work at the factories. But like every other Labor Law this is often ignored. If the bosses even do pay for medical checkups and keep records, it is only done to those workers which they know have not been exposed to dangerous chemicals or substances in the production processes.

There are many documented cases where workers in toxic industries were not aware of the possible fatalities and often paid for it with their lives. In Chan’s book she provides a detailed report of the dangers workers that worked with hydrocarbon poisons in a shoe factory in Putian, Fujian faced. These workers worked in cramped areas with little ventilation where more than 2,500 tons of hydrocarbon fumes engulfed the space. In Putian, Fujian, better known as “Shoe city”, thousands of women work long hours for little pay at jobs where they work with adhesive glue containing toxic levels of three hydrocarbons.

While “long-term contact can cause minor symptoms of dizziness, loss of appetite, loss of memory and mental capacity, and major symptoms of anemia leading to death, “ what is worse is that “most effects are gradual and may eventually lead to cancer and birth defects.” (Chan 84) Since the effects are gradual, factory owners are even less likely to take responsibility for the illnesses faced by workers. Without taking responsibility, factories refuse to even pay treatment costs and often fire workers because they are deemed useless despite the fact that these said factories were the cause of the problem. When some of said factories were visited by reporters factory owners made overt attempts, like most other factory owners, to cover up the conditions leading to these diseases.

The reason they try to cover up is because if reporters were shown the working conditions it would become obvious that many of these problems could be fixed very easily. As one of the women reporters went undercover in this case, it became quite clear that in many of these cases that factory owners could merely pay for better ventilation systems to fix the problem of densely filled hydrocarbon spaces. But due to the greed filled owners, they would rather put a few dollars of profit over the basic human rights these workers deserve.

While it seems easier for factory owners to escape the responsibility of workers that suffer from occupational diseases, articles and first hand stories have come to show that they just as easily shed responsibility when the results are clearly visible. In these cases the physical cost usually comes in the form of workers being maimed and becoming amputees. In fact, “millions of Chinese workers have lost legs, arms, hands or fingers since 1995.” (Tofani) These incidents are caused by the use of unsafe and outdated machines. These outdated or primitive machines are usually old machines from Japan and Korea.

Even though “China’s 2002 Law on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases orders factories to gradually replace unsafe machines” (Tofani), the law is often ignored and rarely enforced. Not only are these crude machines dangerous in and of themselves, but coupled with the workers’ grueling work schedule and fatigue there are even more accidents. Once these workers lose their fingers or limbs they soon are deemed unfit to work or if they continue to work they are unable to earn as much as they were before. The sector of workers in which on the job injuries is one of the most serious issues is child laborers.

This is a serious issue for child laborers due to “lack of experience and knowledge, long work hours, high risk work post assigned.” (Chinalaborwatch) This means “work injury occurs frequently among child laborers, whether it is a minor or a serious injury, and because they are not insured, they are responsible for their own injury.” (Chinalaborwatch) While it is not bad enough that there is child labor in the first place, whether it be forced or out of necessity, there is then the worry that at thirteen or fourteen a child could lose a limb which would then hurt his or her chance of ever making money for their families again.

According to Child labor prevention there are no certain statistics on the amount of child laborers, but there “should be about ten to twenty million child laborers.” (Chinalaborwatch) Even though China has actually taken steps towards reducing child labor, it is clearly still a prevalent problem. While some children are forced to work or even sold by their parents to middlemen, others do it out of necessity to provide for their family. While some factories do actually try to abide by this no child labor policy, it is often difficult do to the fact that child laborers either use other people’s work ids or fake ids.

Since these are not real ids they do not benefit from the little social insurances that they would, yet they still are responsible for the same workload. From an early age these children experience not only the lack of labor rights but pure humanistic rights. As Leslie Chang follows working girls around in her novel Factory girls she becomes shocked as she realizes that these girls even treat each other as things instead of humans when asking about each others backgrounds.

For example, when they meet each other one of the first questions asks is “What year are you? ...as if speaking not of human beings but of the makes of cars.” (Chang) With all the costs of China’s competitive advantage, what is the government doing about it? They would say that they have enacted many labor laws, but as stated earlier in the paper these laws are usually breached and rarely with any consequences. Despite these breaches China’s government claims they are still taking strides to fix their everlasting labor issues.

Among these strides is Chinas most recent Labor Law, the Labour Contract Law which was put in place in January of 2008. This new law is “aimed at protecting employees’ rights, stabilizing employment relationships, minimizing disputes and empowering unions.” (Cafolla) But much like earlier attempts, it is rare to see this law followed. If factories don’t blatantly ignore the laws then local governments often come up with every excuse possible to not follow. For example, many local governments currently are being allowed not to put this law into effect due to the economic woes in other countries like the United States. In other words, to them there is always a reason why workers should not be given rights.

After all these laws and restrictions are instated by the Chinese government, how are these factories able to disregard these laws and get around things? There are a few reasons this happens, including a weak legal system, excessive corruption, and the need to keep a strong local economy. Due to the weak legal system faced in China, it is easy for the centralized government to make laws, but it is up to the local governments to enforce said laws and this is where the problems stem from. Once in the hands of the local governments these laws can be strictly enforces or barely at all.

One of the main determinants of whether or not the local government will enforce the laws is based on how corrupt the government officials are. Many government officials take bribes from factories, and often demand them, in order for factories to go about their usual mistreatment of workers in order to gain a larger profit. Aside from bribery, local governments have another incentive to have relaxed enforcement of labor laws. This incentive is that local governments want to keep a strong local economy. The local government’s favoritism towards management is due to the fact that “Corporate tax is a main source of local revenue, and local governments compete to attract foreign investors.” (Chan 15)

Therefore, with more lax enforcement, the more likely they will have more investors which equals more money. More money to these local governments seems to trump their unethical conduct. These harsh conditions become exponentially greater in the circumstances when the governments themselves become a part of joint ventures, making it close to impossible for workers to ever seek any justice. As stated by Chan, “when bureaucracies involved are all pro-management, a willingness to overlook fire, labor, and health and safety regulations is commonplace.” (Chan 15)

The next question that comes to mind is why isn’t the rest of the world up in arms about this? First of all many consumers are completely unaware, and second of all it is our own US corporations that are playing a key role in the resultant conditions. In the process of pushing to get the lowest production prices so they can turn around and sell their products for an even larger profit, they force manufacturers to cut corners. It is often common practice for foreign clients, including many US corporations, to push forward dates or make drastic changes to their orders without making changes.

This then causes the manufacturers to feel that they are left with very little choice but to force their workers to work overtime even if the hours are in violation of the labor law requirements. In the minds of the manufacturers they realize that it will anger their workers but they know they could not have a business if they did not have orders. Not only do foreign corporations place unreasonable time constraints on Chinese manufacturers, but they engage in what has been called “the race to zero.”

This phrase stems from the idea that these foreign businesses are on a nonstop quest for lower prices in order to please their consumers who expect quality at continually lower prices. In this race to zero businesses “demand continual price declines from their suppliers” and “if one factory can’t provide that, they find another that can.” (Harney 37) In other words these foreign investors unceasingly seek lower prices and do this by auctioning off their orders to manufacturers and pitting these manufacturers against each other. In the end the “winner” of the order is stuck fulfilling an order at an almost impossible price which in the end results in price cuts and worsening conditions for the workers. But is the worker ever really taken into consideration when these transactions are made?

The answer is no. After looking at the mistreatment of workers struggling to make money, it is plain to see that there are many sources of their pain. What is debatable is who is most to blame for their suffering. Is it the consumers, the foreign businesses, the Chinese local governments or the factory owners themselves?

In my opinion the Chinese local governments and factory owners share most of the blame but not all of it. People of the US would never allow this kind of mistreatment to their workers so why should they continue to support the mistreatment of Chinese workers by buying cheap products made there. Not only should consumers work together to put an end to this tyrannical practice but something should be done to stop the foreign investors from pitting the manufacturers each other and then forcing them to produce products at insanely low prices.

If China does not do something to fix this ever growing problem they could have a larger issues on their hands as workers will start to rebel. These workers are people, they not only deserve better and more strongly enforced labor laws but they deserve to be treated like humans.

Works Cited

Cafolla, Liana. "The costs of China's Labor." China Staff 14 (2008): 8-11.

Chan, Anita. China's Workers Under Assault The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy (Asia and the Pacific). Chicago: East Gate Book, 2001.

Chang, Leslie T. Factory Girls. Spiegal & Grau, 2008.

“Child Labor Prevention” China Labor Watch. 30 September 2008. 15 April 2009.

Harney, Alexandra. The China Price The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage. New York: Penguin P HC, The, 2008.

Mardi Gras: Made in China. Dir. David Redmon. Prod. Deborah & Dale Smith and Ashley Sabin. Ed. David Redmon. Carnivalesque Films, 2008.

Tofani, Loretta. “Primitive machines take digits and limbs.” Salt Lake Tribune. 14 April 2009.