Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What Is Going On In The Chinese Labor Market?

Tom Garrett writes:
Apparently, 9 young workers have committed suicide after being pushed too hard to meet the rush of orders for the iPads.

Would love to hear your take on it.
He sends along a link to an LATimes story about the spate of suicides in Chinese tech factories, including some of the Foxconn facilities responsible for producing the new Apple iPad:
Psychologists and Buddhist monks have come to console workers. There is a suicide hotline, piped-in music and a stress-release center where workers are invited to hit a punching bag with a picture of their supervisor.

But so far, nothing and nobody have been able to stop the suicides at Foxconn Technology Group, which manufactures Apple's iPhones as well as Dell and Hewlett-Packard components in Shenzhen in southern China.

The latest worker to commit suicide jumped to his death Tuesday. He was a 19-year-old identified as Li Hai, a migrant from Hunan province who had worked for the company just 42 days. He was the ninth worker at the Shenzhen facility to jump to his death this year. Another Foxconn worker committed suicide in northern China, and two others in Shenzhen survived falls.
Later, the LATimes published another article following up on the story, proclaiming the "End of cheap labor era for China pits workers against manufacturers":
Global manufacturers struggling with life-or-death pressures to control costs are finding that the legions of low-wage Chinese workers they rely on have limits.

A strike at Honda Motor Co. and the official response to a spate of suicides at Foxconn Technology, a maker of electronics for industry giants such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, suggests China's leaders are at least tacitly allowing workers to talk back.

Over the weekend, the top communist party leader in Guangdong province visited Foxconn's sprawling factory where 10 workers have committed suicide and urged the company to adopt a "better, more humane working environment" for its mostly young workers, state media reported.

"The 80s and 90s generation workers need more care and respect and need to be motivated to work with enthusiasm," said Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, who has backed efforts to shift Guangdong up the industrial ladder away from reliance on exports of low tech, cheap products.
Even the Financial Times is in on this gig, with an online video interview of Chinese "labour activist" Han Dongfang (who made an "expert" appearance in the original LATimes article and was heavily relied upon for the majority of its substance) who claims that the Chinese labor system is "sick" and extols the benefits of labor unions in China.

So, the narrative according to the Western media is as follows-- the increasingly capitalistic Chinese economy is rife with the exploitation of workers by profit-driven factory owners, who in their single-minded quest for the lowest cost production method available have driven their benighted workers to anxiety-induced suicide attempts.

And, oddly enough, it comes during a time when massive volatility in Forex markets have thrown previously longstanding trade "balances" out of wack, leading numerous Western political leaders (including the Obama administration) to do a bit of saber-rattling on the trade war/competitive currency devaluation front.

In fact, I think the timing of these news pieces is the most significant part of the story as a whole, and not the incidence of suicides amongst young Chinese tech fabricators upon which they're based. Undoubtedly there have been other suicides amongst Chinese factory workers in the past. Contrary to popular belief, the proto-industrial China of the 1950s, '60s and '70s was not a worker's paradise by any means. But then, the workers were guided (owned) by the benevolent Chinese communist state, whereas now they're at the mercy of for-profit manufacturer mercenaries.

Fast forward to today, where populist and political rage about the outsourcing of jobs to China is all the rage amongst Western voters and politicians alike. A couple of well-timed, poorly researched media hit pieces on the deplorably stressful conditions of Chinese factories could really tug on the heartstrings of Western voters and help bolster the case for continued/renewed pressure by Western politicians and diplomats to encourage their Chinese counterparts to support the unionization of the Chinese labor force.

A unionized Chinese labor force is, as in the West, a more expensive, less productive one... and voila! Instant-competitiveness for Western workers!

As economist George Reisman explains, what's truly perverse about the whole frame-up by Western media of this "capitalist" travesty in China is that it's all based upon flawed Marxist exploitation theory, a theory which blames capitalism for the exploitation that is actually inherent in socialist economic systems, such as China's:
As a final irony it turns out not only that capitalism is not a system of the exploitation of labor, but that the actual system of the exploitation of labor is socialism. Socialism establishes the very kind of exploitation for the alleged existence of which people seek to overthrow capitalism.

The socialist state holds a universal monopoly on employment and production. Its citizens are economically powerless in their capacity both as workers and as consumers. No economic factor compels the socialist state to take account of their wishes. From an economic point of view, the rulers of the socialist state need be concerned with the values of the citizens only insofar as it needs them to have the health and strength required to work.

Moreover, the leading moral-political principle of the socialist state is that the citizen is not an end in himself, as he is acknowledged to be under capitalism, but is a means to the ends of "society." Since society does not inhabit any known mountain top, and cannot be communicated with in any direct way, its ends can be made known only through the rulers of the socialist state. Thus, the principle that the individual is the means to the ends of society necessarily means, in practice, that he is the means to the ends of society as divined, interpreted, and determined by the rulers of the socialist state. And what this means is that he is the means to the ends of the rulers. A more servile arrangement can hardly be imagined.
There's more where that came from, read the rest here.

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