China is the world’s second largest economy, and for the last thirty years has experienced exponential economic growth. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping began the process of changing China’s economy from a command economy (under communist rule) to a market economy. This process opened up Chinese markets to Western companies, and began the transformation China has seen for the last three decades.
China’s Factory Workers
The ubiquitous “Made in China” label reflects the reality of China’s manufacturing prowess and domination in the world marketplace. Economic globalization, along with political reform, has had an enormous impact on the lives of the average Chinese citizen. Migrant workers have left the countryside in droves seeking jobs in the city, with the intent of making as much money as possible.
While Americans generally associate the idea of Chinese factory workers with terrible conditions and long hours (which are certainly issues), there is another side to the story. While earning between $1.31 and $2.76 an hour seems like a pittance to Americans, the cost of living in China is significantly lower than in the US, and often migrant workers are creating a better life for themselves and their families through factory work.
Many labor advocates like to point out that the average Chinese factory worker can’t afford to purchase the iPhones they’re making. But in a recent TEDtalk, writer Leslie T. Chang sought to illustrate that in spite of what Americans consider “sweatshop” conditions, not all Chinese factory workers feel oppressed and hopeless. In fact, it’s often the opposite, with workers wanting to put in longer hours to earn more money. The Chinese culture values collective good over individualism, and factory workers are often supporting a younger sibling or other family member by working to pay for schooling. The sacrifice of living in a big city far away from home is often worth the cash income, especially when compared to traditional subsistence farming. “Income from migrant work is the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China,” she says.
On her website, Chang states:
Certainly conditions in the factories are tough. Most of the young women I got to know while researching this book worked thirteen hours a day, seven days a week when they first started out. Their wages were often late; many had no idea how much they would be paid from month to month, because the factory charged fees for all sorts of things over which they had no control. But you have to remember that the world looks very different when you’re coming from a Chinese farming village. What we think of as miserable living conditions—bad food, tedious labor, living twelve or fifteen to a room—are a given to these workers. Their response is usually not to complain or protest, as a typical American might, but to look for any slight advantage that would lead to an improvement in their situations. I think that’s the reason you see a lot less protest in these factories than you might expect. These workers are constantly calculating what is in their own best interest. Usually they decide that talking a boss into giving them a raise or jumping to a different job is a better option than challenging the factory directly.
The women Chang follows in her book often rise above the factory-floor and become urban middle-class workers, despite the challenges they face in the beginning.
From her TEDtalk:
The first time I met Min, she had just turned 18 and quit her first job on the assembly line of an electronics factory. Over the next two years, I watched as she switched jobs five times, eventually landing a lucrative post in the purchasing department of a hardware factory. Later, she married a fellow migrant worker, moved with him to his village, gave birth to two daughters, and saved enough money to buy a secondhand Buick for herself and an apartment for her parents.
For the rural poor, the dream of this middle class life is what drives them to the factories, to the evening classes in English, and to constantly analyze the next move forward, rather than trying to change the factories themselves.
Labor Laws vs. Reality
China’s labor laws are actually not bad and often in favor of the worker, but the enforcement is lax. As a result, many Chinese workers are treated poorly by their superiors and often have no recourse. Much of the workforce is made up of migrant workers, many of whom left school in the 7th or 8th grade to come to the city for work. More recently, however, Chinese workers as a whole have become more aware of their rights and protections.
A new documentary called Who Pays The Price? The Human Cost of Electronics highlights the dangers and injustices faced by electronics factory workers. China is one of few countries that does not ban benzene, a carcinogenic chemical (most often associated with leukemia) used in electronics manufacturing. Benzene poisoning among factory workers has become an increasingly prominent issue in international dialogues about business practices. Labor groups are working to ban the chemical from manufacturing processes, and Apple has already responded.
Even as China’s growth has fluctuated, workers’ wages have risen significantly over the last decade. Cities are expanding rapidly, and more people are able to afford luxuries like cars and mobile phones, even high-end fashion. As wages rise, oil prices increase shipping costs, and the government tries to implement policies that benefit both workers and private enterprise, the unprecedented boom in China may be leveling off.