Work Sucks in China? Who Knew?

Apple announced yesterday that a nonprofit group it partly finances, the Fair Labor Association, would begin inspections at supplier factories in China, most notably Foxconn. This follows a string of horrific stories coming out about Foxconn in recent months, some detailing suicides by workers protesting draconian working conditions. Apple’s moves are an important first step, one that other technology companies that use Chinese labor are sure to follow. What is confounding is how any tale of woe involving China’s labor force is a surprise at this point.
China has little more than token labor laws, and unions are outlawed. There is, and has been, little recourse for the worker to demand better working conditions, shorter hours, better pay, or benefits. The decades-long fight for workers’ rights that took place here in the United States and other western nations beginning in the late 1800s has never taken place in China. Little things that American workers expect as a condition of employment, like the 40-hour work week, weekends, living wages, health and retirement plans, a ban on child labor, and workplace safety, are of little concern to the powers that be in China.
And this extends beyond electronics manufacturing. As another example, conditions are so horrendous in Chinese coal mines that thousands of miners die yearly in mining accidents, far and above the worst death rate for coal miners in the world.
Chinese laborers face some of the harshest working conditions on the planet, but it’s not because they’re Chinese.
Once upon a time, it was a risk to life and limb for American workers to simply get out of bed and go to work. Mills and mines exploited labor in ways just as terrible as in China today, but American workers began to fight back against their employers. Changes did not take place overnight. It took decades, and thousands of deaths (both work-related and protest-related) for American workers to get the protections that we have. This led to the costs of American labor rising for American companies. Their solution, in turn, was to shift that labor to countries where the long fight for fair labor practices had yet to be fought, and labor was cheap.
The out of sight, out of mind attitude of American companies, including Apple, followed by their shock once overseas working conditions come to light, is wholly disingenuous. It costs money to be fair to your workers. Sending work to a place where labor is not costly is more than mere indication that workers are being exploited. Rather, it is a virtual guarantee.