Friday Rant: Workin' in a Chinese coal mine — Goin' Down Down Down…

Spend Matters welcomes a rant from lead analyst Thomas Kase.

Even though Apple gets the most press about poor working conditions in China these days, we'd argue there's something else much larger, nefarious and cultural lurking beneath the timecard surface. As appealing as it might be to blame Apple for the errors of their Chinese suppliers' extremely abusive practices, this looks a lot like the results of a culture gap.

I'd argue it's not so much a China-specific issue either. Based on first-hand experiences from spending seven years in Japanese manufacturing industries in the '90s, the same workload expectations and obsessive/martinet managerial approaches were clearly on display all over Japan as well, with 'karoshi' or 'death-by-overwork' entering the vocabulary.

Taking a historical perspective, it's actually not even an East-West issue -- look at early industrialization in the West, and the famous stories about worker abuse back then -- something our left-wing textbook authors will never let school children forget about. Perhaps we should donate some of those textbooks to China. It looks like they could learn quite a bit from them.

In sociology there's a concept of cultural sedimentation, which to my understanding implies that the West has formed social layers over time, with layer upon layer settling in. These layers comprise stories about the extremely hazardous workplaces during early industrialization, forced labor and indentured servitude commonplace in all Western countries, worker riots, labor unions, political emancipation, ultimately labor laws, and workforce safety (with insurance companies driving much compliance).

Albeit limited in scope, I think UL/FM equipment approval as prerequisite for insurance coverage is a brilliant private sector solution to many equipment-related workplace safety problems, with strong personal property rights and legal ways to redress grievances as the two cornerstones behind change. All of this shows that there is a long change management process -- to use supply chain terminology -- that the Chinese in particular are trying to ignore/avoid at the moment. This is a futile activity in my opinion since the Maslovian hierarchy ultimately applies to the Chinese just as much as to people in other countries.

Not that this changes the fact that terrible things take place in Chinese factories -- but remember that the Japanese job rotation system wasn't originally driven by cross-training needs. It had much more to do with the fact that workers literally wore out too quickly if they had to endure the extremely rapid and repetitive tasks that a tuned automotive assembly line required.

Let's see if the water dragon year of 2012 will bring about needed creative change in China when it comes to workplace design, set-up and rules. Of course we'd also welcome some personal economic freedom for those who aren't in good with the politburo, truly free (and fair) trade policies and a floating currency. But maybe that's asking too much.

- Thomas Kase

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