Dickens meets Huxley: labor in China
from Merijn Knibbe
The most unhealthy industrial job in nineteenth century Europe was probably making cutlery, as whetting, grinding and polishing metal filled the air with little metal particles which quickly ruined your lungs. The situation in China today seems to be little better, looking at the ‘sweat shops’ in Shenzen, a 30 year old city with 14 million inhabitants. Shenzen, you know, the city where the iPod is assembled. And all this other stuff. This American Life has an in-depth investigative journalism article about it. It makes you think twice, about your iPod.
“I’m at a restaurant in the factory zone, seated at a table with Kathy. And this aphorism is running through my head over and over again– I can’t remember who said it originally– that paranoia is not paranoia when they’re actually out to get you.
And I go through my checklist again. I’ve gone through my pockets and found every slip of paper with an email address or a phone number, and I’ve destroyed all of these. I’ve hidden my paper notes off of my person, and I’ve erased everything on my laptop. And anything I can’t erase is on an encrypted partition that I hope is encrypted enough. I’ve done all of these things because I am in this restaurant to meet with a union.
Because there are unions in China. There are the ones that are fronts for the Communist Party, and then there are actual unions interested in labor reform. They’re called secret unions, because in China, if you’re caught being a member of or affiliating with a union like that, you go to prison. You go to prison for many years. And that’s why I’ve had to take these precautions…
Then the workers start coming in. They come in in twos and threes and fours. They come in all day. It’s an eight, nine-hour day. I interview all of them. Some of them are in groups.
There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.
I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.”