Apple Computer, Nike, Wal-Mart and many other companies depend on Asian sweatshops as suppliers—a sweatshop being defined as a factory with low pay and benefits, long working hours and child labor.
Some writers, including Nicholas Kristof, who reports from Asia and Africa for the New York Times, and Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, say that in historic perspective, Asian sweatshops represent a step forward. As bad as conditions are in China or Cambodia, they are better than they were under Mao. As tough as it is to work in a Foxconn factory, many find it a lesser evil than rural poverty. As bad as it is to have a young child working 12 hours a day in a factory, it is better than being sold into prostitution, if that is the only alternative.
SF writer Bruce Sterling made this argument many years ago in an article in Wired magazine about megaprojects in China and elsewhere.
China has a very bad government. Nobody should fool themselves about this. It’s a profoundly corrupt one-party dictatorship based on a bankrupt, morally discredited ideology.
However, the current Chinese government is certainly the best government any living Chinese citizen has ever seen.
Their 20th century: Corruption, Catastrophe, Foreign Repression, Revolution, Repression, Revolution, Military Coup, Chaos, Warlordism, Anarchy, Foreign Invasion, People’s War, Civil War, Communism, Starvation, Purges, Anarchist Frenzy, Counterpurges—and then, suddenly, material relief—maybe enough food and a warm place to sleep.
The 21st century is almost upon them now [this was written in 1998]: cologne, panty hose, Asian pop videos and maybe even a car. The Chinese people are definitely with this program. They know how much they have to lose.
Defenders of Asia sweatshops go on to say that there were sweatshops and child labor in the United States in the early days of industrialization, and, so they argue, this laid the foundation of the prosperity that we enjoy today.
The problem with this argument is that the sweatshop advocates are saying to the Chinese workers: Thus far and no further. Because conditions were even worse in the past, you can’t expect any improvement in the future.
U.S. companies such as Apple Computer, Nike and Wal-Mart are not just adapting to Chinese conditions. They are collaborating with the Chinese government is keeping conditions as they are. If Chinese workers had the freedom to bargain collectively, I would not tell them they were settling for too little. But you can’t claim to be an advocate for Chinese workers and at the same time deny them a voice.
What I would ask of Apple, Nike or Wal-Mart is that the company live up to its own professed standards. This would require two things:
- Have labor standards audited by a truly independent organization, such as the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, and publish the results of these audits. There would be no need to set new standards. Let the auditors use existing corporate standards.
- Cancel bonuses of an executive who subcontracts to a supplier that fails to meet the minimum labor standard. So long as executive compensation is based solely on financial criteria, and labor standards are merely aspirational, the latter will be ignored.
We the people could choose to buy only from companies that have independent audits and meet minimum labor standards. Shareholder activists could demand independent audits and labor standards. The U.S. Congress could finance independent auditors and impose taxes or penalties on imported products produced under inhuman conditions.
This would not mean the deindustrialization of China or other poor countries. It would be a lever to both protect American workers and improve conditions in those countries. It would not be a zero-sum game. Prosperous Chinese would be good potential customers.
Such leverage has been used to improve the quality of manufactured products. The ISO 9000 standards for assuring a quality manufacturing process spread outward from Germany to the European Union to the whole world. It should be possible to use similar techniques to inprove labor standards.
The strenuous efforts by the Chinese government and Chinese governments to suppress unions and blacklist malcontents, and the suicides among stressed-out workers at Foxconn, the big Chinese electronic components supplier, show that Chinese workers—some of them, at least—want something better than they have. We Americans should not be accomplices in holding them down.
Click on Outsourcing: the Good Side of Asian Sweatshops for the pro-sweatshop argument.
Click on Behind the Label for a collection of interesting brief essays on the issue of Asian sweatshops.
Click on Sacon for the home page of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior and its continuing reporting on labor issues in China.
Click on The Spirit of Mega for Bruce Sterling’s entire 1998 article.