The ‘devil’ is certainly in the detail when it comes to doing business in China, but what many of us have not perhaps realised is that doing business with China, amounts, all too often, to ‘doing deals with devils’ and propping up a ‘slave’ economy.
The discovery of hundreds of workers, some of them children, forced to work in illegal brickworks in China is the latest atrocity to be reported, but in truth it is only one of many. Police officers raided underground brick factories and rescued hundreds of men and boys. Pictures showed the rescued workers dressed in rags and looking confused and bedraggled.
‘Made in China’ seems to be all too often synonymous with ‘Made by slave labour,’ it is just that most have turned a blind eye to it in the name of corporate profits and personal economy.
In recent years, several reports have exposed the harsh working conditions in Chinese toy factories, to quote just one example, which produce almost 75 per cent of the world’s output. The perspective behind many of these reports was to shame multinationals such as Wal-Mart, Mattel, McDonalds and KFC into ensuring decent conditions and pay in the plants that churn out their toys.
However, investigations last year by China Labour Watch show that the appalling exploitation of Chinese workers continues unabated. Three reports issued in September and December 2005 detailed working and living conditions in 13 factories in Dongguan City, Guangdong province.
The number of workers employed in the 13 surveyed factories varied from 300 to 4,000. Excessive working hours, debilitating temperatures of up to 38C, dangerous equipment, toxic glues, paints and solvents, cramped dormitories, abusive managers, crooked hiring practices and wages below even China’s legal minimum were the order of the day.
The working week was gruelling—a 13 to 15-hour day was common, with one day off a week or, in some cases, just one night off. During the peak season, typically from September to the end of May, workers were allowed only one day off a month. In some factories, mandatory all-night shifts of 16 to 19 hours were common during busy periods. Lunch and supper breaks accounted for 2.5 hours each shift.
Perhaps we have applied salve to our conscience by telling ourselves that, while there is a good chance that Chinese workers do not have the same conditions and rights that we do, they are in desperate need of paid work, of any kind, and doing business with China, without too many questions asked, is in their interests as a developing nation.
But is it? At what point do we hold China, international corporations and the buying public accountable for the appalling conditions of exploitation and abuse in which so many Chinese work?
We are quick to complain when jobs go overseas and yet suddenly quiet when we purchase goods which are cheaper because they are made in China - although not so much cheaper, in some instances. Take fashion, for example. It is quite some years now since much of our fashion manufacturing went to China and yet, despite the fact that top labels and designers are now having their goods made much more cheaply, the price tickets have not changed much at all. We have acquiesced in a market where we pay much the same price for goods which are made by poorly-paid workers and arguably to a lower standard of quality than when they were manufactured in Australia. Anyone who has lived or travelled in the Third World knows what workers are paid, in what conditions they labour and can quite easily make a comparison between the price, for instance, of a jacket made by an Australian tailor and one made in a Chinese sweatshop for a top Australian designer. Not surprisingly, the difference in tag price is not great and we all know those ‘profits’ are not going to the workers – but we buy the Chinese-made jacket all the same, because it saves us some money and we ignore the reality of its lesser quality.
The size of China and its economic power makes us all vulnerable if we allow a manufacturing system to be entrenched which is successful largely because it utilises what amounts to exploitative labour at best and ‘slave’ labour at worst. But equally as troubling as human exploitation is the way many things are produced in China in gross violation of international health and safety norms and which can put at risk not only workers, but those who buy the product.
There is no denying that China has done well in recent decades in its effort to develop and modernise, but that does not excuse too many Western observers from being blinded by its economic success and ignoring its many and often deadly violations of international norms. At a time when health-and-safety regulations are becoming ever more stringent in the European Union and the United States, why is China treated with so much lenience when it consistently ignores rules of safety and legality?
The world barely blinked over the recent melamine-tainted pet-food scandal which killed 8,500 dogs (also sold for use in feed for pigs and chickens) in the United States and caused a massive recall; or to the drug scandal involving cough syrup laced with poisonous diethylene glycol (used in anti-freeze) which had been falsely labelled as less expensive - but fit for human consumption and glycerine used in exported toothpaste, which caused the death of between 100 and 450 Panamanian children..
These incidents are not exceptional. In the first four months of 2007, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors - who are able to check less than one per cent of imports - sent back to China 298 contaminated food shipments; among them dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical, honey with banned antibiotics and mushrooms with illegal pesticides. China has gotten away with flouting food and safety regulations in a way which would not be possible in developed nations.
In May 2007, the Chinese drug administration, when asked to explain why the Taixing Glycerine Factory (which used glycol in the deadly syrup sold in Panama) or the Beijing-based State trading company Fortune Way could not be prosecuted, said that it had no jurisdiction, as the plants were not certified to make medicine.
Chinese success rides on the back of a labour ‘free-for-all’, where anything goes as long as money is made and the people remain passive. It also rides on the back of kow-towing by Western governments which have vested interests in doing business with China and huge corporations that turn a blind eye as long as profit margins continue to increase.
China can get away with what it does because it is aided and abetted by Western governments, business and the buying public. It is, in essence, ‘our creature’ and the more powerful it becomes, as it does by the day, the less power the developed world has to challenge the way business is done by China and in China.
Of course, the problem is not restricted to China – it is found in every developed nation and for all the same sorts of reasons. Our banks and telecommunications companies are sending jobs to India because it is cheaper; businesses are sending their manufacturing offshore to places like Thailand, India and China – because it is cheaper. We , in essence, are taking advantage of the poor wages and working conditions of undeveloped nations. It always has been thus to some degree or another, but in our globalised economy, lowering standards in order to increase profits, will have a bounce-back effect on standards in developed nations as well.
Beyond the practicalities, there is a moral question which must be addressed if the developed world is to have any hope in convincing less developed and less democratic nations that there is a better way of doing things.
Independent MP Bob Such called on the Federal Government to introduce fair trading laws to stop Australian manufacturers being ‘decimated’ by countries which did not pay proper wages or have health, safety or environmental safeguards.
“Why sacrifice our workers and manufacturing capacity on the altar of an unlevel playing field which is anything but fair?” he asked.
Why indeed? More to the point, why betray the hard-won principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights which underpin our modern world and which ensure that Australians, like all those who live in the developed world, have the greatest opportunity to live a healthy, safe and fulfilling life for the sake of greed?
There are investments which keep the ‘bank balance’ on the rise and there are investments which ensure a better world for all those who will come after us. Both sorts of investments need to be balanced and if a choice must be made, then it should err on the side of the latter.
It is a Chinese belief, perhaps one they have forgotten for the moment, that nations need to plan in terms of centuries not decades, for it is only then that a real future is ensured. It is a belief which teaches that sometimes we need to be inconvenienced, perhaps even to suffer a little and to learn patience, in order to work for a better world. That ‘quick fixes’ and even ‘quicker profits’ are not always in our best interests. It is something we need to remember every time we pick up an item and read a label which says: Made in China!