(Image: Associated Press via The New York Times)
I wish we could send every American consumer to southern China to see where the stuff we buy gets made. I wish it were a requirement to tour a Chinese factory before we could buy anything Made in China. Headlines like the iPad story in today’s New York Times hit me so much differently now that I’ve seen Chinese manufacturing with my own eyes (I traveled there undercover last April). These factories are far from the Dickensian sweatshops we imagine they are. Nor are they good places to work.
China’s factory system operates on a staggering scale and level of sophistication (there aren’t even words). How to compete with a country that has an entire city devoted to churning out enough socks for ever person on the planet every year? That said, it’s hard to generalize about factory conditions in China because there are so many factories. Some factories are horrible and dangerous, others aren’t. The garment factories I saw were nice and definitely more organized and efficient than the ones in the States.
But there is one common thread at most Chinese factories — the workers dedicate almost their entire existence to working. They live in factory dorms, they put in 12 to 14 hour days, weekends included. Many of them want the overtime because it’s the only way to make a decent wage.
Consumer obsession with the latest and the newest iPad, clothing trend, etc. is ultimately what’s driving these workplace problems, as is the corporate insistence on selling us on the latest and newest to generate profit. It’s absolutely crucial that wages continue to increase in China and that working hours are reduced. These forces will continue to raise prices on consumer products here, which is ultimately a good thing for both China and the U.S. It is the only way I can imagine we’ll curb the insane levels of consumption that we’ve fallen into, and it is the only way our own factories will be able to compete with a country that’s outperforming us in a number of ways besides low price.