Don’t Feel Guilty About Chinese Worker Abuse

Get mad instead.

Kevin Slaten

Worker dormitories, like this one in Wuxi, China, are often hot and crowded. (China Labor Watch)

In October, China Labor Watch (CLW) published a report that exposed a laundry list of labor rights violations in six Chinese factories producing Mattel toys. These undercover investigations revealed that workers perform up to 110 hours of monthly overtime, live in hot, crowded dormitories and do not receive effective safety training or adequate protective equipment. Moreover, the report estimated the factories steal $11 million from workers each year through a combination of unpaid overtime, work hour trickery and voluntary social insurance.” For more than a decade, the CLW pointed out, Mattel itself has also performed audits of supplier factories — and uncovered similar awful labor conditions.

U.S. corporations exploit China's political and economic inequality to earn greater profits, turn around to tell American consumers that they hold labor standards in high regard and then turn back around to continue disrespecting Chinese workers’ legal rights.

And Mattel is not the only U.S. company to utilize Chinese factories that severely infringe upon workers’ rights. Suppliers for Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard have also been accused of subjecting their (sometimes underage) employees to illegally long working hours, discrimination and unpaid wages.

So how should we, as Americans, react to worker abuse in the supply chains of so many leading U.S. corporations? Should we feel guilty for contributing to the suffering of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of strangers?

No, we should not, say some prominent writers and academics.

In a well-known TED talk, for example, former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang says that it is inaccurate and disrespectful” to feel guilty about the exploitation of Chinese workers for our insatiable demand for things. She argues that workers have made a conscious choice to leave their rural homes to work in factories. 

Meanwhile, Cornell University’s Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Labor Eli Friedman criticizes American consumer guilt as misguided: Chinese workers are depicted [by First World consumers] as the pitiable victims of globalization … Passive and exploited toilers, they suffer stoically for our iPhones and bathtowels. And only we can save them, by absorbing their torrent of exports, or campaigning benevolently for their humane treatment at the hands of our’ multinationals.”

Taken together, these views suggest that we should not feel responsible for our role in Chinese worker oppression. And while it’s true that we, as individual Americans, have not personally contributed to the daily exploitation of factory workers, we must not substitute apathy for guilt. Instead, we should feel anger.

Imagine that you bought a watch at a small shop only to discover later that the storeowner stole the watch from someone who had fallen in the street. Though you benefited from the cheap watch, you did not assault or rob the victim in the first place. You should not feel personally responsible for this violation. But you should probably feel angry at the fact of the injustice — you could even report the storeowner. 

Chinese workers, like someone who has fallen in the street, are in a vulnerable position. In a one-party state, they currently lack the political power to bring about the full enforcement of Chinese labor law. Workers are developing an understanding of their rights and the willingness to defend them, but strikes and protests are isolated or suppressed by the Chinese government.

And despite what Chang argues, most workers do not celebrate the choice to work at factories that disrespect their dignity and treat them as second-class citizens. Globalization has offered most Chinese migrants a tough choice: scrape by on the family’s farm or do only slightly better in in a far-off factory. 

With workers lacking political strength or economic options, U.S. companies and the factories they employ sacrifice employees’ rights for profit. This is despite many U.S. corporations’ widely publicized commitments to ethical and legal conduct worldwide through codes of conduct and supplier responsibility“ promises. By consistently using factories that violate workers’ legal rights, American companies are, at the very least, failing to fulfill their promises to consumers and society. 

In short, U.S. corporations exploit China’s political and economic inequality to earn greater profits, turn around to tell American consumers that they hold labor standards in high regard, and then turn back around to continue disrespecting Chinese workers’ legal rights. This behavior warps the playing field, mocks the rule of law and perpetuates injustice. And apathy will do nothing to stop it.

Americans who feel that this is an injustice can use anger as an impetus to take steps to help. Boycotting is not one of them. Indeed, successfully boycotting of products made in China will likely get workers laid off — and it will not change the country’s systemic and widespread labor rights abuses.

Instead, consumers can contact U.S. companies and tell them how important it is that they live up to their promises and abide by laws around the world. Additionally, Americans should tell their representatives that the U.S. government must hold its companies to higher standards and legal regulations abroad, as detailed in the UN Human Rights Commission’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. People can also follow and support the campaigns of organizations like CLW, whose mission is to strengthen the respect of Chinese labor rights. 

Americans often call on other nations and peoples abroad to respect human rights. But it is best to lead by example; we can begin with U.S. companies. 

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Kevin Slaten is the program coordinator at China Labor Watch. His views do not necessarily represent those of China Labor Watch.
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