Years ago I visited China for the first time. A huge digital clock in Tiananmen Square counted down, to the second, towards the date at which Hong Kong would finally return to the PRC. One day while playing tourist, I had the option of either going to Mao’s tomb or KFC.
KFC won easily. It seemed to be the perfect way to honor what was by then Mao’s distorted legacy, which some have called the “never setting Red Sun.” That sun certainly is red—because of the haze that lingers thanks to the countless factories from Changchun to Guangzhou. But pollution is probably the least of Chinese workers’ many worries.
China’s industrial revolution was already underway full-swing by the mid-1990s. Living and working in Korea at the time, I remember Seoul’s markets were already teaming with cheap products that had for long had no longer been made in Korea—back then Korean companies had outsourced manufacturing to their country’s gargantuan neighbor.
For a generation, we have been enjoying everything from cashmere sweaters to smartphones, with the assumption that because of China’s 1.3 billion people, there would always be an endless supply of cheap labor. And with a cheap price tag comes a huge pond that separates us from the daily routine in China. So we are far removed from what occurs 16 time zones away, right?
The reality, however, is that the Chinese government, eager to build up the country’s economy, has never permitted its workers to receive fair pay for their labor. Workers, many of whom have left the countryside to find better opportunity in places like Shenzhen (pictured), can technically join official state-sanctioned unions. Nevertheless, the powerfully connected in China, many of whom run the state-controlled companies, are the ones who really run the show. And labor organizers who are a bit too aggressive get stern warnings, and if they persist, prison sentences follow.
Abundant reasons exist for the beating down any renegade labor movement: fear of factories moving to other nearby populous countries that thirst for the jobs; leaders spooked by the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprisings; Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Movement in Poland, which boiled over into turmoil throughout Eastern Europe, and eventually led to a transformation of power and society from Estonia to Hungary.
So what are the results for Chinese workers? Some would argue economic opportunity and gain, and arguably, China’s industrialization lifted many out of poverty. The price for many factory employees, however, was a steep one.
The exact number of Chinese workers who die in factory deaths each year is unknown. Dated statistics from the International Labor Organization suggest that about 147,000, or 11.1 per 100,000, die annually. Johann Hari of the United Kingdom’s Independent asserts that about 600,000 die each year. The number, most likely, is somewhere in between. As Hari harrowingly describes in his recent article, the monotony and conditions in many factories are disturbing, and that is even before they endure harassment and abuse from their supervisors. The conditions described are not that different from scenes in British and American factories over a hundred years ago. The suicides at Foxconn, the electronics manufacturing giant that churns out iPhones, are only part of the fuel that is feeding a fiery summer of discontent at factories across China.
While Chinese workers face an uphill battle, small victories have added up. The strike at Honda plants this summer gained workers some wage concessions, an action other companies have mimicked.
But what will the end results be? Will factories be safer? Will improved working conditions eventually lead to higher prices, or will we always be inundated with cheap Chinese goods?
And if we can verify that annual death rate of 600,000 workers, would that make you pause before you buy that latest electronic gadget? Or is the situation hopeless for consumers while proving to provide grief-stricken lives for Chinese workers?