For years, western manufacturers have treated China as a virtually inexhaustible pool of cheap labor, ready and willing to work for fractions of a penny on the dollar. And, for years, China lived up to that billing, as companies like Apple, and industries such as the American garment trade, built empires on the backs of cheap, compliant, Chinese labor.
Trillions of dollars flowed into its factories from foreign lands, and the arrangement helped turn China into a superpower. As China inexorably gains more and more wealth, one question naturally follows: Will its citizens continue to allow themselves to serve as the sweatshop laborers of choice for global capitalists?
This week, one group of workers at a medical supply factory outside of Beijing is saying a resounding “no.”
For the past five days, disgruntled and proactive employees at a Specialty Medical Supplies manufacturing plant have held the company’s American CEO, Chip Starnes, hostage—demanding a severance package after, the employees say, Starnes decided to outsource their jobs to India.
The irony of Chinese workers taking action over outsourcing is obvious, but their revolt comes at the same time as many workers and citizens across China have begun demanding better treatment. Chinese citizens in Shanghai recently protested against the construction of a lithium battery plant, for fear of the environmental consequences. Meanwhile, families in China’s northeastern Jilin province took to the streets after a fire killed 119 workers in a local poultry plant.
Whether or not Starnes is guilty of any ethical or legal violations in his dealings with his workers is almost immaterial. The real question, in the wake of these eruptions of social unrest, is whether China’s workers are finally saying enough is enough to exploitation.
Is the action against Starnes, and the spate of public protests over worker conditions in China, indicative of a growing international labor movement? Are the days of the never-ending pool of exploited overseas labor drawing to a close?
San Francisco State University Labor and Employment Studies Director John Logan says, sadly, no.
“I’m on the pessimistic end of the scale. I see the precarious work arrangements in countries like China are the norm and are spreading more and more. Not just to poor countries, but to the United States. The trend is still spiraling downward.”
Rather than being part of a solidified effort to demand better working conditions and fair pay, Logan says Chinese workers, and other workers around the developing world, are often forced to extremes such as the hostage taking because they have nothing to lose. The issue of severance can mean life or death in the developing world.
“For workers in countries with a limited social safety net, severance pay is a critical matter. The location you are staying may not have other work. Losing your job may mean relocating just to survive. Not just in China, throughout the developing world. So it’s not entirely surprising these workers would take extreme action. They have no other choice.”
That’s not to discount the growing protests. Laborers in China are increasingly standing up for themselves, which is an important development. However, says Logan, these actions are largely spontaneous, and not part of a cohesive movement.
“Taking your boss hostage, and other protests we’re seeing, are clearly signs of discontent, but they’re not organized in any sustainable way. As of now, there is no organization that represents the interests of Chinese workers in a coherent way.”
The trudge toward fair and equitable global labor practices is an uphill climb. Especially since countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh are now offering incredibly cheap labor markets, markets that offer very little in the form of worker protections. The garment industry has already jumped ship from China to take advantage of lower prices in Bangladesh and India—resulting in several catastrophic factory tragedies.
Still, the growing unrest in China—something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago—offers some hope.
Given our shrinking, globalized world, if Chinese citizens, faced with crushing poverty and living under the stamp of a repressive government, can stand up for themselves, the dawn of a day free from unethical and exploitative outsourcing could someday be at hand.
Is an American CEO being taken hostage by his Chinese workers a good sign or a bad sign for global prosperity? Share your thoughts in COMMENTS.