Friday, August 06, 2010

Amazing—and distressing—story about working conditions in China

After slavery was abolished in 1833, Britain's GDP fell by 10 percent—but they knew that cheap goods and fat profits made from flogging people until they broke were not worth having. Do we?
Johann Hari: And the Most Inspiring Good News Story of the Year Is...
The staff work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps ten workers, and each dorm houses 5000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with. A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm. Workers must report to their stations fifteen minutes ahead of schedule for a military-style drill: 'Everybody, attention! Face left! Face right!' Once they begin, they are strictly forbidden from talking, listening to music, or going to the toilet. Anybody who breaks this rule is screamed at and made to clean the toilets as punishment. Then it's back to the dorm.

It's the human equivalent to battery farming. One worker said: 'My job is to put rubber pads on the base of each computer mouse... This is a mind-numbing job. I am basically repeating the same motion over and over for over twelve hours a day.' At a nearby Meitai factory, which made keyboards for Microsoft, a worker said: 'We're really livestock and shouldn't be called workers.' They are even banned from making their own food, or having sex. They live off the gruel and slop they are required to buy from the canteen, except on Fridays, when they are given a small chicken leg and foot, 'to symbolize their improving life.'

Even as their work has propelled China towards being a super-power, these workers got less and less. Wages as a proportion of GDP fell in China every single year from 1983 to 2005.

They can be treated this way because of a very specific kind of politics that has prevailed in China for two decades now. Very rich people are allowed to form into organizations -- corporations -- to ruthlessly advance their interests, but the rest of the population is forbidden by the secret police from banding together to create organizations to protect theirs. The political practices of Maoism were neatly transferred from communism to corporations: both regard human beings as dispensable instruments only there to serve economic ends.

We'll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours. Here's just one: think of him as the Unknown Worker, standing for them all. Liu Pan was a 17 year old operating a machine that made cards and cardboard that were sold on to big name Western corporations, including Disney. When he tried to clear its jammed machinery, he got pulled into it. His sister said: 'When we got his body, his whole head was crushed. We couldn't even see his eyes.' &helip;

Last year, the Chinese dictatorship was so panicked by the widespread uprisings that they prepared an extraordinary step forward. They drafted a new labor law that would allow workers to form and elect their own trade unions. It would plant seeds of democracy across China's workplaces. Western corporations lobbied very hard against it, saying it would create a "negative investment environment" - by which they mean smaller profits. Western governments obediently backed the corporations and opposed freedom and democracy for Chinese workers. So the law was whittled down and democracy stripped out.

It wasn't enough. This year Chinese workers have risen even harder to demand a fair share of the prosperity they create. Now company after company is making massive concessions: pay rises of over 60 percent are being conceded. Even more crucially, officials in Guandong province, the manufacturing heartland of the country, have announced they are seriously considering allowing workers to elect their own representatives to carry out collective bargaining after all.

Just like last time, Western corporations and governments are lobbying frantically against this -- and to keep the millions of Yan Lis stuck at their assembly lines into the 35th hour.

This isn't a distant struggle: you are at its heart, whether you like it or not. There is an electrical extension cord running from your laptop and mobile and games console to the people like Yan Li and Liu Pan dying to make them. So you have to make a choice. You can passively let the corporations and governments speak for you in trying to beat these people back into semi-servitude - or you can side with the organizations here that support their cry for freedom, like No Sweat in Britain, or the National Labour Committee in the US, by donating to them, or volunteering for their campaigns.

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