Working conditions in overseas factories are a subject of much interest in the news lately, thanks to a series of devastating industrial accidents in regions like India and the memory of worker suicides at Foxconn’s Chinese facility in 2010. Conscientious Western consumers want to avoid buying products made in conditions where workers are exploited or subjected to a dangerous environment, and if you read the news, you might think that China, at least, is reforming its manufacturing and industrial sector. Publications like The Wall Street Journal even bemoan a worker shortage, suggesting that factories are desperate for qualified employees.
According to reports, people are making more, elevating their standard of living and making factory work a more viable way of climbing the economic ladder. Companies eager to demonstrate their social responsibility also claim to be cracking down on sweatshop conditions, limiting worker exploitation in their factories and those used by their contractors. Companies like Apple that choose to keep production in China instead of moving to regions like India when China’s minimum wage went up and the company began regulating factories more tightly now claim that their Chinese factories are safe, clean and pleasant to work in.
All of which sounds mighty good to consumers who want to do the right thing while still exercising some buying power. Except that the real story is more complicated, because many Chinese factories are claiming to maintain high standards for their workers while relying on temporary labor.
Full time workers in China enjoy a number of protections. They’re paid at least the minimum wage, and their employers are required to pay into insurance funds for them, including insurance that creates a safety net in the event of a work accident or other catastrophe. Needless to say, temps don’t have access to these benefits, let alone health care benefits, pensions, or retirement assistance. Most temporary workers are migrants from various regions of China, and their working conditions are often grossly illegal.
They may work for 12 hours a day or more in a factory, engaged in far more overtime than is allowed, and their wages work out to less than the minimum wage. They also don’t have contracts with their employers, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, and many of them are children, too. The labor supply companies that send them out to clients are far more interested in the service fees they collect from workers than they are in the legal status of a given worker.
Migrant workers like those who make up the bulk of the temp workforce in China earn more than 40% less than the national average. This strongly suggests that something smells wrong — if working conditions in Chinese factories are so improved from the past, why are so many struggling to find personnel, and why are so many workers making such drastically low wages? These issues should be setting warning bells off in the ears of consumers, but unfortunately, they rarely reach the light of day.
The solution to the problem of overseas sweatshops and worker exploitations must involved sustained public pressure, and it clearly needs to involve support for worker-based movements in nations like China. The situation with temporary workers is the result of a complex web of corruption and clear conflicts between workers, factory owners and government agencies charged with oversight. China, along with other nations, must learn that the West is watching its working conditions closely.
Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan