Monday, May 21, 2007

The Plight of China's Migrant Workers

To advocate the strengthening of labor rights for China’s migrant workers is to risk, on the one hand, accusations of imperialistic thinking, and on the other, accusations of utopian fantasy. To those who would lump my call for labor rights together with George Bush’s crusade for “freedom and democracy,” this essay argues that the United States government benefits every bit as much as the Chinese government does from the exploitation of these workers. Thus, both governments are equally culpable for their plight. To those, on the other hand, who consider a call for labor rights utopian, this essay argues that on the contrary such rights are a basic necessity for human life and healthy political culture in modern societies. Those countries lacking a labor rights system are the same countries expending massive energy in fighting the consequences of this lack: insurgencies, poverty, religious radicalism, and social unrest. In one sense only may a call for labor rights in China be considered utopian: in the fact that such a call does not conform to the interests of the governments of China or the United States, and hence, will possibly never be realized. For all the heat and light generated over points of friction between the two governments, inhuman working conditions, especially for mingong, or rural migrant workers, is the hidden handshake sealing the deal between these two governments.

Every age of economic expansion has its population designated for sacrifice. In mid-nineteenth century England, the designated group was the new English working class, meaning those farmers driven from the countryside into the factories by worsening rural conditions. Charles Dickens arose from that jagged chorus of human suffering and created works of literature that pierce the conscience to this day. Now, even as I write, a Chinese youth with an itch to write is riding the rails somewhere, migrating with this era’s sacrificial mass. Someday his or her writings will lash the consciences of the ruling classes of both nations for their complicity in this program of barbarity. But such a sacrifice is not without benefit for these classes and their respective governments. Otherwise, how could it proceed with such little comment? Barbarity is traded for convenience. Yes, convenience: this bland word is the core value of a globalizing civilization.

The United States has, for several decades, been following the dictates of a free market logic, which favors the corporate managerial class, and trading high quality working class jobs for low-cost consumption. This trend has generally held true, as NAFTA and other agreements “denationalize” American corporations to the point that they may consider their own interests in absolute freedom, even taking actions injurious to American society. Low-cost consumption only prevails, of course, in areas of the country not desired by the rich. Housing costs in scenic areas, for example, or in attractive cities, essentially turn such areas into playgrounds for the rich – all without the need for distasteful political decisions. The market’s hidden hand does Washington’s political dirty work. In general, however, the trend exemplified in Sam Walton’s success with Wal-Mart typifies the modern United States: faced with declining income security for the middle and lower classes, the government is able to partially diffuse rising class resentments with the promise that a Christmas tree, made in China, may be purchased for next to nothing at Wal-Mart.

Though Sam Walton is often credited for the genius of his supply and pricing systems, such a “genius” is merely a leaf carried along on a deep current of human exploitation. Walton’s sophisticated tracking systems and buying techniques, in other words, could only be built atop the backs of people whose lives, labor, and rights, are held very cheaply by those managing them. The real genius of this essentially bi-national system is moral: American consumers buy cheap goods made under conditions no American law, or American conscience, would ever willingly allow within American borders. But morality tends not to cross national borders very well. Because the manufacture of the Christmas tree takes place in Guangdong rather than in Ohio, the American consumer can more easily pretend moral ignorance. Wal-Mart’s greatest service to consumers is not low prices but the moral convenience of buying tainted goods in a store proclaiming its own essential American decency.

Within the larger picture of global economic restructuring, the United States government clearly requires cheap consumption if the working and middle classes are to be kept politically quiescent. (Rituals of patriotism, such as war, are another crucial aspect of this strategy.) In addition, the current United States regime’s continued electoral success rests in large part upon monopolizing the corporate money of people such as Mr. Walton, who are paying for the right to play ball where and how they please, regardless of niggling details like labor rights.

Neither can it be plausibly denied that the Chinese government relies politically on the Wal-Mart system for its survival, as well. For the Chinese government, however, the benefit accrues not so much from cheap consumption to keep quiet declining social classes, but rather from the direct infusion of money collected from manufacturers (both foreign and domestic) into state coffers. This infusion of cash allows a monopolistic regime to extend its life and purchase new legitimacy by building massive roads and buildings. Much of this public spending ends up in the hands of well-connected regional and national elites whose companies do the building. These architectural and engineering monuments to state power festoon every major Chinese city and extend the regime’s lease on life. The Chinese government, just like the American one, owes its continued existence to the blood and sweat of tens of millions of never-named mingong.

Two weeks ago I sat across from a mingong family on a five-hour train ride in an interior Chinese province. The mother was exhausted and the father was somber, but it was their daughter who attracted my attention. Only four years old, she burned with an incandescent fury. Her parents, unlike her, had been allowed the luxury of a childhood, having grown up back before market reforms, and although they were worn out by the migrant life of legal discrimination, little respect, fewer rights, and less money, as adults they were still able to endure it. But the daughter, dressed in a handmade sweater the blazing color of marigolds, was a living sacrifice to the Wal-Mart export system. Her gaze never shifted. She sat as still as a stuffed doll. I tried looking directly into her eyes: most children squirm and shift shyly under such adult attention. But Marigold Girl’s eyes were as steady and cold as the mouth of a gun.

It was I who averted my eyes.

The first two hours of the ride she did not move, her mouth set in a grim tension. Her parents were too tired to do more than gesture at affection, and she sat there, bangs mussed and sweaty, cheeks chapped red, eyes subtly narrowed into a glare of spooky intensity. She was at war with life. She was an emotional casualty even before she knew the meaning of the words “victim,” or “pain,” before she knew the meaning of joy.

When the little daughter of the city couple across the aisle prattled and twirled, all of us passengers laughed with delight. Only Marigold Girl and her mother observed this charmed tableau without any expression whatsoever. The scene was so dark for me that in the whole five hours, I hardly managed to exchange more than a few words with the family. Nor was it easy to take my eyes off of them. The family rode alone in their own bubble of utter powerlessness, a bubble marking them off as clear to the eye as the chapped cheeks and downturned mouths of mother and daughter. I have observed other sacrifices to Wal-Mart’s system of moral convenience, people with faces so molded by the bitter winds of fate that they belonged to a world I could not imagine inhabiting, but Marigold Girl’s eyes expressed a desolation that could not be met without an ominous twinge – without the strong need to turn away. Neither Mr. Walton, nor Mr. Hu, nor Mr. Bush need ever meet her gaze. The powerful live within their own bubble, a bubble of privileged moral separation.

They need never meet those radioactive eyes.

The Chinese press has of late discussed a so-called “mingong huang,” or “migrant worker scare.” This “scare,” of course, does not refer to the anxiety of such workers over their rampant exploitation, injury, and death. For them, these things are the way of a world not meant for them. Rather, this scare refers to the worry of manufacturers and developers over a shortage of cheap labor. Despite the crush of workers on the roads and rail system over the New Year, apparently many industries are facing shortages of labor and being forced to scale back production (March 4, Wenzhai Zhoubao, reprint of Fenghuang Zhoukan; writer, Cheng Gangdeng). Mr. Cheng suggests that the inhuman working conditions – he cites a surgeon in Foshan, Guangdong, who has performed 4,000 finger reattachment operations over ten years – are to blame for the constriction in the labor pool. The number of strikes has increased sharply over the past few years. After all, people will not accept being treated as animals forever, even if it is for the lofty interests of the three gentlemen named above.

The week after encountering Marigold Girl, I met individual evidence of Mr. Cheng’s argument. In a cheap hotel where I was staying, one of the staff struck up a conversation with me. Liu Deying related her experiences working at two different manufacturing plants in Guangdong province. After these two stints of 15 hour days, with 15 minute “meal” breaks; after enduring capricious managerial pettiness, such as “security deposits” of one or two months pay; after the daily humiliation of being denied free access to the toilet, she decided never again to submit to such treatment. She would rather make nothing as a hotel clerk than make next to nothing as a female worker without rights, without respect, without voice.

Yet it is precisely such levels of exploitation and violation of human dignity that has softened Mr. Bush’s statements in defense of the Taiwanese government, or in criticizing China’s government. As the Global Times’ February 4th headline proclaimed after Mr. Bush’s latest State of the Union speech, “Bush’s Address Does Not Mention China.” His abstract calls for “freedom” offend his allies in Beijing far less then specific demands regarding rights. It is precisely such beyond-feudal conditions – after all, serfs were never denied the right to urinate or defecate when they needed – which brings the two government’s subtly closer. And when the interests of two powerful parties coincide to exploit a poor population, it is at such times that normal demands for basic worker’s rights can only be deemed utopian. For it is at such times that one can no longer rely on members of either government to be a motivating force for enforcing basic rights. One need only contrast the zeal with which the United States government pursues the issue of piracy, or theft of “intellectual property,” with their bland lack of interest in labor rights and working conditions. Pirating, of course, hits the American government and its elite backers right in the wallet. An improvement in subhuman labor conditions would cut into their revenues even more than piracy. Why advocate labor rights, then, when upholding human dignity would hurt one’s profits?

A new internationalism is in order.

In recent years, non-governmental organizations throughout the developed world have made efforts to influence consumer consciousness by creating systems of certification. Such certifications state that a given product, such as coffee, was produced under certain “fair conditions,” such as the producer receiving a minimum percentage of the final sale price. In addition, labor unions in developed countries have continuously called for greater attention to labor standards in countries considered to be “taking” jobs. These efforts, too, have made inroads within the American garment industry, by resulting in certification which guarantees that a certain article of clothing was not produced under “sweat shop” conditions. In such initiatives, bodies within the producer and consumer nation work in concert. I propose that the United Nations take the idea of “fair production” or “fair trade” as pioneered by NGO’s (such as Oxfam in the United Kingdom) and labor unions, and enlist governments of both consumer and producer nations in promoting its more extensive use. In the United States, a coalition of interested parties – including consumers with the means to purchase more expensive, certified products -- can rise to help promote the creation of such a system. An international system of certification would change national borders from walls of moral silence, behind which corporate giants strike deals with governments, to points of contact between peoples in a broader struggle for justice.

No nation can benefit from the blood and tears of another nation’s people without itself paying a moral price. No class of people can benefit from the blood and tears of another class’ people without itself, one day, paying a moral price. And moral prices paid on credit have a way of piling up into debts with ominous political and economic consequences. War is the easiest way for undemocratic governments to divert attention from their own cruelties. The expectation of war already hangs over the western Pacific: young Chinese raise the possibility with me in conversation all the time. These ordinary citizens see more clearly than their own government the tectonic movements bringing the two nations closer to war. A scheme (such as the Wal-Mart system) done on the sly between states will not be enough to avert war if “patriotic” pressures on both sides reach a feverish enough pitch. The current shared scheme to exploit the poor, mainly the Chinese poor, is no substitute for true friendship between two great nations. Let us stand together, then, as people of conscience -- first for labor rights, and then for the peace that would flow from the guarantee of these rights. Let us stand together in denouncing the Wal-Mart system for what it is: a barbarous, bi-national pact of silence, a secret handshake made over the bodies of China’s rural poor.

A new internationalism is in order: a globalization of conscience.

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