When Chinese Suppliers Abuse Workers: What You Don’t Read in the Headlines (Part 1)

Rather than a little light summer reading this August, I thought I'd share some of the summary highlights from a more somber report Tragedies of Globalization: The Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops No Contracts, Excessive Overtime and Discrimination: A Report on Abuses in Ten Multinational Electronics Factories. Published by China Labor Watch, the analysis, which comes off as slightly less professional than it should given the gravity of the subject, is nonetheless a critical piece of primary research into the violations of countless factories in China. Reading the report, you can't help but feel like there is an organized effort -- despite rhetoric to the contrary to appease labor leaders and end-customers -- in China to maintain a status quo where labor rule violation is the norm and not the exception.

Having spent some time in China visiting factories in both highly civilized areas (e.g., Suzhou Industrial Park) and the middle of nowhere that the Chinese government has decided that labor violations are by far the lesser of two evils. Indeed, it's far easier to deal with a few dozen publicized deaths and serious violations in the public eye each quarter than it would be to deal with the potential civil unrest -- and harm to the "harmonious society" -- from having workers unemployed. Until the Chinese government decides that it must enforce its own labor standards because it will impact the export demand for its products if they don't, I have no doubt that the violations outlined by China Labor Watch in their 137 page 2011 analysis will continue for years, if not decades.

In a series of posts throughout the remainder of August, I plan to share some of the findings and anecdotes from China Labor Watch's recent report. While the NGO could certainly do with some pro-bono or reduced cost work from a consultancy that could help them make a more quantitative and grounded case, the raw information and examples it provides certainly has its place. As background before exploring some of the violations in the second post in this series, China Labor Watch did its research via a range of undercover factory investigations and interviews including interviews with workers in ten factories.

In total, "408 workers were interviewed after the formal investigation started in October 2010" and 185 additional workers were interviewed before. The depth of the research and the consistency of related violations from factory-to-factory suggests an organized effort on behalf of the Chinese government to turn its back on violations. Judge for yourself -- but in our view, it's pretty clear that Chinese politburo would prefer workers that are exhausted and abused with a few extra RMB in their pockets to those with any extra time on their hands and hunger in their bellies to cause unrest. China, no doubt, has made their choice. But after reading the report, let's hope more businesses exporting from the region can make a more educated decision and what types of suppliers to work with in a global sourcing context.

Jason Busch

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