Home > Uncategorized > Dickens meets Huxley: labor in China

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.

An excerpt:

“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.”

  1. January 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm


    • January 23, 2012 at 3:58 am

      Det är därför fackföreningar behövs.

  2. Podargus
    January 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks for the link,Merijn. The article illustrates just one of the many reasons why the present Chinese system is unsustainable and is therefore screwed.

    And,in my opinion,that toxic system,globalization, is also screwed for the same,and more,reasons.

  3. January 21, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I don’t think it is too hard to figure out why they don’t use alcohol (hic!)

  4. John Campbell
    January 22, 2012 at 6:24 am

    The program on This American Life (available by podcast) is well worth listening to, for this story–very entertaining as well as appalling–but also for an extraordinarily balanced discussion about sweatshops in developing countries. Paul Krugman, for one, is quoted defending them. The reporter, the amazing Mike Daisey, points out that even if they are inevitable and in a sense good over all, there is no reason why they could not pay a bit more attention to labor protection. For example, the very fine manipulations in some operations leads to crippling carpal-tunnel-like injuries, which could be avoided by rotating jobs every month.

  5. Dave Taylor
    January 23, 2012 at 7:39 am

    What an appalling story, Merijn, and what sensible comment you make.

    Curiously, staying with family “down under”, I picked up an elusive old book, Walter Greenwood’s ‘County’ book, “Lancashire” (1950), about where I grew up. It tells a story behind some then still dreadful conditions in his own home, the city of Salford. “William Douglas [d.1810], a man notable, among othe things, for never having once in his lifetime performed a single generous action, got scores of orphan and foundling children from the workhouses, six years old and upwards, and worked them as slaves from dawn until night. The little girls were treated tp the grpssest indecencies, the lads whipped on and beaten if they slacked in their work. If they tried to run away, they were fetched back in chains and made to sleep in their fetters. Some committed suicide, and those who survived the term of their appenticeship were so deformed that William Douglas’s mills became known as the Cripple Factory”. By contrast, a similar mill [still extant] ten miles away “employed 200 workhouse children, bound apprentice for seven years. Mr Greg treated the children kindly and most of them stayed on to work for their employer after they had finished their time”.

    Greenwood goes on to how fittingly recent children had obliterated Douglas’s grave, but concludes ruefully: “The loving kindness which Jesus taught us to show our brothers and sisters is a plant of very slow growth”.

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