Another day in the land of cheap labour…


I watched a documentary last night called China Blue. It was that same old story which is always the theme of most documentaries based on China – that being a girl from a poor family setting out to work in a clothing factory, only to work excruciatingly long hours for absolute peanuts.  

Sixteen-year-old Jasmine is a thread-cutter at the Lifeng Factory, one of dozens of denim manufacturers in Shaxi, South China. As she puts it, she makes the “big and fat” jeans we wear. Like her new friends at the factory – Liping, a seamstress, and Orchid, a zipper installer – Jasmine is one of hundreds of millions of people, mostly young women, who make up the largest pool of cheap labour in the world. She works gruelling 16 hour days for scant wages. Midnight trips downtown to buy “energy tea” with Liping provide some relief from the onerous production cycle and harsh working conditions.

I have written about such documentaries before and the result is always the same, they are always sad and depressing yet fascinate me all the same. I often feel an overwhelming need to help these people but of course never do; not from not wanting to – but how does one exactly help these millions of people stuck in the same circumstance? It certainly gets my mind thinking. The sad thing is, despite their crappy situations, they’re probably better off than many others – but not by much.

China is a ridiculously complicated country. It’s a country that has so many social issues affecting it, that whenever someone mentions that they will one day rule the world – while quite possible given the rate of their advancement, it’s still difficult to imagine, when their greater population is effectively in poverty.

What happens when the demand for their cheap products finally declines? Human rights is always a big issue, and there’s always stories floating around about companies sending inspectors to factories to check on the conditions-  yadda yadda yadda – but as the documentary highlighted, the factories often falsify their statistics. There’s no ethics, it’s all about making a profit, and damned the quality of life that the employees are facing. In the show, the boss thought he’d improve work efficiency by putting up a ‘motivational’ poster:  

“Work hard today or you’ll be working hard trying to find a job tomorrow!”

That’s so bad it’s almost laughable. What is that, a motivational threat? If the employee isn’t happy…they’re always free to leave. The boss doesn’t care and is only too happy to remind the staff of this fact as there’s practically an unlimited supply of replacements who’ll gladly step in to fill up the vacancy.

One scene showed an English business man pushing for lower prices on the individual items – prices which the factory then had to compensate for by further reducing the pay of employees – the employees who were already raking in around 4 yuan an hour. Ask yourself, would you work for 40 cents an hour?

What I would like to see is a documentary based on the smiling foreigners who toured the factory, commenting on how impressive it was. I’d like to see it based on these people living at the factory themselves for a period of six months, then hearing their praise for how good the factory was. Wow, what a great factory you have! *smile smile* Try living there yourself – you’d be purchasing a ticket home within the day – let’s see your smile then.

So while our wonderful foreign brands send representatives to check the conditions, they’re only receiving a falsified glance as no-one really wants to stick around any longer than the brief tour – where they’re treated to huge smiles and banquets – I mean, who wouldn’t feel impressed – the Chinese know how to pander to our foreign ego’s, making us feel like mini-kings.

Eventually, the shit will hit the fan. Eventually, the media will expose these companies and it will be embarrassing for them to be associated with these armies of underpaid overworked Chinese. And so they will take their businesses to somewhere else – somewhere less in the spotlight – India perhaps. And when the demand for Chinese products disappears – god help these poor Chinese factory workers, as the first change that’ll happen will be their jobs disappearing.

One thing is for certain – we the foreign masses are not prepared to pay any more than minimum for our day to day products. While we trumpet about these kind of issues, ultimately, we’re still buying the products, and moreso, we bitch about hikes in price as they occur. The only real way to enforce change is by ceasing to by the products of these companies that exploit the poor workers of countries such as China. But the day people cease buying iPhones and the like, is the day hell freezes over.

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6 Responses to “Another day in the land of cheap labour…”

  1. LetChinaSleep Says:

    I can’t really say that I “Like” this post because of the subject matter, but it is definitely something that is worth reading. When I was in Lanzhou, I heard about this stuff over and over and over again, and I never get used to hearing about it. It’s a truly sad thing.

  2. Marcus Says:

    Oddly enough, I didn’t really hear anything about this kind of thing when I was actually living in Wuxi. Previous to going to China, I had done a lot of reading, inhaled as many doco’s and the like as possible, but it was largely locational (ie trying to work out where would be a good place to live) as opposed to issues and current affairs.

    Whilst in China, we really were oblivious to most news other than browsing news websites back home – though those mostly covered local Australian goings on. The only English TV channel was CCT9 – which was…..horrible..just horrible. Did you get to watch that by any chance?
    But yeah, I was oblivious to it while there. There were factories nearby, and we would often walk in front of them once we had gotten off the bus to see tons of workers who would go and buy food from the impromptu food stalls that would setup across the road, but what went on inside the factories was a mystery. In fact, we felt that way with many things that went on in the school – we never really learned the specifics of anything, which was a bizarre way to live.

    One of the reasons I loved the book River Town, is Peter Hessler with his Chinese language ability could actually explain many of the things that I experienced but never understood.

  3. ming Says:

    hi i was reading you guys blog when you guys went to teach in china and it was great! what program did you guys go with? how did you guys go about it?

  4. Vickie Says:

    I love documentaries. I get all up-in-arms watching the world’s injustices on cellulose (well, now on ones and zeros).
    Watched an interesting one last week on how the appalling U.S. school system works. Called “Waiting for Superman” – recommend it – it left my mouth open in disbelief several times.

    The word on the street here in Vietnam is that more and more garment/manufacturing is coming to Northern Vietnam because it’s getting more expensive in China. Not sure I believe that, but with 80 million people gunning for money Vietnam is moving toward an industrial system like China’s.

  5. Marcus Says:

    Hey Ming –

    We didn’t actually go as part of any program, we found our own work via the internet. It’s funny you should ask that actually as I have had a few people ask me similar and I have been meaning to write a few posts about it.

    Long story short – we first got our TESOL certificates (Teaching English as a Second Language Cert) which cost us around $1900 Australian to complete. It was quick and easy to actually do, but I guess the cost could put some people off.

    Then we put resumes together and put them up on Dave’s ESL Cafe

    This website is an amazing resource for any prospective or current teachers studying ESL overseas. Just make sure that your resume is not your standard one you might use for a job back home. Dont put in any really personal details – and create a specific email address from it as you might attract a lot of spam to it. Just a mobile phone number will be ok – dont put your address or anything. And then just list your relevant experience to teaching, or anything you might feel is appealing to a potential employer.

    And to answer your question I saw that you left over at Team Wuxi – No we were not teachers – and are still not teachers. The main qualities you need in order to teach, beyond confidence (which trust me, I am not completely brimming in), is the ability to be engaging, personable, friendly and above all – patient.


  6. Marcus Says:

    Yeah Vick, doco’s are the bomb. I bet when you finally leave Vietnam you’ll be like us, and be wanting to absorb every piece of Vietnamese information possible, missing the place like crazy.

    Funnily enough, I watched another doco on the weekend about Hanoi (ok I kinda got it as your posts make me want to come join you there). It was crap – the doco – some American show from the Travel Channel called Culture Shock – Hanoi. It was basically a plebs guide to living in Hanoi (or an unfamiliar culture). It used a bunch of lame, setup scenarios to teach a pleb how to deal with an unfamiliar culture.

    I did find some of the things they showed somewhat borderline interesting, but the host was a bit of a tool, so it didnt really do it for me!

    I love the documentaries on China though, even though they’re depressing as hell. There seems to be plenty of them on SBS on a regular basis too.

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