Q1: Why are nearly all of your material possessions (clothes, kitchen appliances, computers, sneakers, electronics, etc.) made in developing countries? Obviously, it’s cheaper. And for many commodities, China is cheapest. But is 57 cents an hour a decent wage in China? No, according to Judith Banister (November, 2005) at the U.S. Department of Labor, on the basis of purchasing power, the average daily salary of a worker in rural China is equivalent to what an American can buy for less than $2 a day. Workers in urban China earn slightly more — enough to buy what an American worker can purchase on $3 a day. Multinational corporations export labor to China and other “developing” countries not because of goodwill; outsourcing exists because it is 97% cheaper to manufacture something in China than it is to manufacture it in the U.S.
Q2: If 57 cents an hour is not a decent wage in China, people would refuse to work for that amount, right? Right. Many Chinese do refuse to work for that amount. The Economist finds that the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations conservatively estimates there were over 150,000 protests in China during 2005 alone — double that of the previous year.1 And if it were not for the Chinese government’s poor human rights record, restrictions on free speech, and environmental deregulation, the number would be substantially greater.
Q3: By importing from China, are we exporting slavery? Each time we purchase an item marked “Made in China,” we are supporting a system described by the Economist as one of “widespread abuses . . . dangerous working conditions, derisory wages and forced overtime.” 2 In 2007, 500 workers in Northeastern China were kidnapped and sold into slavery where they were forced to work 18-hour days3. With few exceptions, Chinese workers are not allowed to unionize, self-organize, or advocate for better conditions. They are, essentially, modern slaves.
There are alternatives: Buy local, if possible, and pressure the World Bank/IMF and other international organizations to support a mandatory living wage for all! It’s time to respect the rights of all people, humanitarian globalization.
The most recent year for available data is 2002.
1 Esther Pan, “China’s Angry Peasants,” Council on Foreign Relations, 15 December 2005.
2 “China’s Unions,” The Economist, 21 September 2006.
3 Simon Elegant, “Slave Labor in China Sparks Outrage,” Time, 20 June 2007.
Jacob Werblow was a teacher in inner-city Los Angeles and San Francisco. Currently, he is an assistant professor of Teacher Education at Central Connecticut State University.