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What Do Chinese Workers Want?

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 28, 2012 11:09 AM

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The whole kerluffle about Mike Daisey's fabrications has set the stage for a more realistic and nuanced account of working conditions in China's high-tech factories. Over at The New Yorker's News Desk blog, Leslie T. Chang -- who has written a book, Factory Girls, about Chinese factory workers -- argues, interestingly, that we are far too self-centered in our thinking about Chinese manufacturing. "China produces goods for markets all over the world, including for its own consumers, thanks to low costs, a large and educated workforce, and a flexible manufacturing system that responds rapidly to market demands. To imagine that we have willed this universe into being is simply solipsistic."


Workers on a Foxconn line in Shenzhen, by Magnus Manske.

Chang says that the Chinese workers she knows are ambitious, self-improving, and excited about their prospects. Americans don't see this because, she writes, we don't hear "the voices of the workers":

Bao Yongxiu: My mother tells me to come home and get married. But if I marry now before I have fully developed myself, I can only marry an ordinary worker. So I’m not in a rush.

Chen Ying: When I went home for the new year, everyone said I had changed so much. They asked me, “What did you do that you have changed so much?” I told them that I studied and worked hard. If you tell them more, they won’t understand anyway.

Most journalistic coverage of Chinese manufacturing, Chang writes, "plays up the relation between workers and their products. Many articles calculate how long a worker would have to labor to buy the item coming off his production line." In fact, "workers do not necessarily desire iPhones.... Their reckonings are different: How much money can I save at this job? How long should I stay? And later: How much do I need to buy an apartment or a car, to get married or put my child through school?"

In a similar vein, Tim Culpan, who's spent years reporting on Foxconn, the manufacturer Daisey visited, writes about "the real Foxconn" for Bloomberg. (You can read his 6,000-word profile of the company online.) Workers at Foxconn, he writes, have complaints "not starkly different from those of workers in any other company. The biggest gripe, which surprised us somewhat, is that they don’t get enough overtime. They wanted to work more, to get more money."

These articles serve as a counterpoint to this conversation between Ira Glass of This American Life and Charles Duhigg of The New York Times:

Glass: As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad?

Duhigg: [...] If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people... enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then... those conditions would be different overseas.

The short version, for me, anyway: It's very good to care about working conditions in Apple's Chinese factories. But it's possible to care without buying into a Dickensian narrative in which child-like, victimized workers toil away in semi-slavery, dreaming of owning a "magical" iPad. Sometimes no newspaper story can capture the whole picture -- that's where novelists come in handy. For further reading, here's a bracing Paul Krugman piece from 1997, "In Praise of Cheap Labor":

[A]s long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard--that is, the fact that you don't like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

Highly relevant update: The Fair Labor Association's new report on Apple's factories, and the promised changes from Apple and Foxconn, here.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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