Tuesday, July 6, 2010

CHINA the Sweatshop

The labor strife spreading through China’s factory cities has clearly frazzled the government. Last month, it deployed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a k a “Grandpa Wen,” who told laborers at a Beijing subway station that the government and society “should treat migrant workers as they would their own children.”

China’s exploited workers don’t need an extra parent. They need higher wages, better working conditions and a chance to form independent unions. They need China to stop being sweatshop to the world.

Worker unrest has spread after reports of suicides at two campuses in southern China owned by Foxconn Technology, an electronics maker that employs 800,000 people in China who assemble products and parts for Western companies, including Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Since May 17, workers struck at three Chinese plants that make transmissions, exhausts and locks for Honda, the Japanese carmaker. There also have been reports of labor action in dozens of other factories.

Working conditions in too many of these factories are dismal, and the pay is, too. At the Pingdingshan Cotton Textile Company, The Toronto Star reported, workers make 65 cents an hour, working grueling two-day shifts, often in 100-plus degree heat. Workers at Honda Lock demanded a 70 percent raise from their $132-a-month wage. There are no independent unions allowed.

China, over all, has done well with its export-dependent strategy based on cheap labor and a cheap currency. Gross domestic product per person trebled over the last 10 years, to $7,200. The share of the population living on less than a dollar a day fell to 16 percent in 2005, from 36 percent in 1999. But China needs to move on.
Too much of the country’s prosperity has been absorbed by companies’ profits. Too little has gone to workers. Partly as a result, consumer spending in China amounts to merely 36 percent of its gross domestic product. In the United States, that percentage is more than 70 percent. In Europe and Japan, it is almost 60 percent.

China’s manufacturing sector can afford to pay higher wages. After the suicides, Foxconn suggested moving production of some Apple products to newer facilities in North and Central China where pay is cheaper than around the manufacturing hubs along the coast. But it also doubled wages at its Shenzen campus — to about $290 a month.

Rising wages and better working conditions are essential for China to become a more self-reliant economy, powered by domestic consumption. Until it treats its workers better, it has no chance of becoming a just and stable society. International Herald Tribune Editorial

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