Written by Aura Gilham, GEI Associate
Today, America crawls with organizations calling for citizens to buy "Made in America" goods only. This call to action reduces the economic interdependence of the world, rooted in simple comparative advantage, to discourse on misunderstood ethics rather than free trade. As an American consumer and a frequent visitor to China, including several visits to American-affiliated Chinese factories, I must question whether the origin of a product really matters in a global economy.
While some groups lament and attempt to fight back against the fact outsourcing reduces job opportunities for uneducated, unskilled workers in America, others rally against the idea American companies perpetuate poverty and inhumanity in the world's largest population: the Chinese. Amidst stories of horrible living conditions, low pay and mind-numbing labor, the media and other organizations call for sweeping reform to the Chinese labor market. Unfortunately, the people pioneering these efforts may inflict more harm than good, suggests Amy Cho, owner of Global Metal Components Corp., an international company with strong ties to China, in our recent interview. She reminds us,
"Often journalists go to China, not understanding Chinese culture, not speaking Chinese, staying in Americanized hotels, taking pictures of hard working people, making comments about how they are mistreated, and suggesting that factories be shut down...Did they ever ask the Chinese workers what they want? How much their lives improved? Whether their dreams are becoming reality?"
Agricultural Workers is China 1980 vs. 2010
In China, the uneducated masses possess little to no opportunity to escape poverty. Interestingly, a fact rarely addressed by the American media. Factory work provides one of the only opportunities for escape. People travel hundreds of miles across China to attain a job at a manufactory because the wages at factories, especially the American affiliated ones, often criticized and condemned by liberal media in America, far surpass all other open opportunities. Cho expanded on this fact by revealing,
"When I toured one of the manufactories in China, a factory worker told me that after two years of working, he can go back to his hometown and be a king. He thanked me for the opportunities, and told me that he is now living a life that he could never dreamed of before."
Although many cite the infamous fact that a Chinese worker can rarely afford to buy the product of their labor at market price, they fail to recognize the market for said goods differs greatly in China; the supply and demand for these items, and by extension price, in Chinese markets differ greatly from the supply and demand in American markets. As Leslie Chang, a journalist, reveals in an interview with Min, a worker for a Coach factory in China which produces many brand name purses,
"In Min's world, the Coach bags had a curious currency. They weren't exactly worthless, but they were nothing close to the actual value, because almost no one they knew wanted to buy one, or knew how much it was worth."
Critics exclaiming over the level of wages in China fail to consider the difference in both desire for (demand-based) and price of (supply-based) goods.
Critics also often scrutinize the living and working conditions of Chinese workers. However, they fail to take into account the different normative living and working standards in America and China; we cannot accurately judge the conditions of Chinese workers using American perspectives. Furthermore, critics cite the high cost of living in Chinese cities as proof workers receive below a subsistence wage, but fail to mention factories often provide living arrangements. Even when articles mention living arrangements, a condemnation of the factory and alleged inhumanity generally follows. Yet, in reality, while living conditions may seem deplorable to Americans familiar only with two car garages and backyards with space for suntanning, the oft criticized living spaces provided to Chinese workers are, according to interviews completed by Chang,
"still better than the dormitories and homes of rural China."
Subjection of the labor conditions in many Chinese factories to comparison with the conditions in American factories returns equally subjective and skewed information, for Chinese norms and standards differ from American norms and requirements. For example, as the American media condemns Apple (APPL) for alleged abusive treatment of workers, ironically, approximately 3,000 prospective employees line the gates of the factory daily seeking a position inside. Chang reminds us,
"Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world."
To believe people would subject themselves to treatment that in their opinion is inhumane is rather self-centered and, frankly, wrong. Unfortunately, Americans fail to recognize the difference in opinions between Americans and Chinese and, thus, falsely assign American valuations to Chinese realities.
Rather than approaching a made in "China" label as confirmation an item is the product of human suffering, we should consider the reality of China's labor market and the opportunity the labeled item provided to a Chinese worker. Rather than reading "made in China" as "inhumane", we should attempt to understand a different and evolving culture. Chinese factory labor is not about "us" abusing "them" for "stuff", but rather a mechanism for millions of Chinese workers to choose a life beyond rural poverty. Before criticizing the system, we must understand the progress already being made and realize change cannot happen through force. To be successful, change in worker conditions in China must be organic and come from individual and economic growth within China; the values, desires, expectations, opportunities, realities and so much more of Chinese workers, along with opportunities provided by the Chinese economy, must first change. Effective and long-lasting change will not result from America manhandling factories and corporations in China into compliance with American standards. As Cho elegantly stated,
"What is humanity? It is helping others with what they need in order to reach what they want. Imposing our ideas of humanity on people we do not understand is simply insulting."
So, when shopping, stop looking at the word after "made in ..."; whatever you buy, you support a worker.