Think Conditions in Chinese Factories are Improving? Think Again!

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.

Related articles:

Foxconn Exploits Workers: What Should Apple Do?

Disabled Enslaved in China’s Brick Factories

Chinese Workers Make $8 Per iPad

Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan

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Dianne McGonigle
Dianne McGonigle2 years ago

China sucks!!

Nils Anders Lunde

It want change to the better as long as the demand for cheap goods "drive the globe"

Sam Antha
Sam Antha2 years ago

It's hard to know what's really going on in overseas factories... Hopefully the laws change soon for the better of all workers!!

Suzie Hughes
Suzie Hughes2 years ago

The Chinese structure doesn't seem to be humane to any living breathing thing does it? They practice such cruelty and inhumanity towards all animal species, it doesn't surprise me that the human species would be any different/
I try so hard not to buy anything made in China and find it is almost impossible. This is our administration's doing. Outsourcing everything to this evil empire.

Paula G.
Paula G.2 years ago

I never did think they got better. Neither the conditions of the workers nor the quality of their products.

Lululemon is a Canadian company that made it big in yoga clothes and other play clothes. They were top shelf. I learned that they moved their product making to China and they just recalled a whole line of their popular black pants because they were inferior. Why not set up shop in Eastern Canada, NS and NB, where work is almost non-existent in some areas and people with degrees are happy to get a job at Tim Horton's!

Gysele van Santen

China is the worst & i want nothing to do with them, at all, ever.

Beth M.
Beth M.2 years ago

We as consumers need to be aware of what we purchase. Know where your products are made.

Berty Jardine
Berty Jardine2 years ago

We consumers have the power to stop this

barbara kelly
Barbara kelly2 years ago

long overdue for a change

Janet K.
Janet K.2 years ago

Thanks to the odious members of the GOP and ALEC, the United States of America is rapidly becoming the new China with regard to protections for the American worker.