Comparing Conditions In Different Places

March 12th, 2012

I have not blogged about the Apple/China/Foxconn controversy much.

So I see this post from David Pogue about a recent trip by 20/20 to the Foxconn factory.

On Tuesday night, ABC broadcast its report. You can watch it online.

To me, the salient paragraph in his script was this:

We looked hard for the kind of underage and maimed workers we’ve read so much about, but we mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue. Some complained of being overworked, others complained of being underworked and almost all said they were underpaid. And when I asked, “What would you change?,” we heard the kind of complaints you might hear in any factory anywhere.

It didn’t look like a sweatshop, frankly. The assembly-line work was certainly mind-numbingly repetitive — one woman files the burrs off the iPad’s Apple-logo hole 6,000 times a day — but that’s the nature of assembly-line work. Meanwhile, this factory was clean and modern.

More tellingly, the broadcast showed 3,000 young Chinese workers lining up at the gates for Foxconn’s Monday morning recruiting session.

Now, these workers know about the 2010 Foxconn suicides. They know that the starting salary is $2 an hour (plus benefits, and no payroll taxes). They know they’ll have 12-hour shifts, with two hourlong breaks. They know that workers sleep in a tiny dorm (six or eight to a room) for $17 a month.

And yet here they are, lining up to work! Apparently, even those conditions, so abhorrent to us, are actually better than these workers’ alternatives: backbreaking rural farm work that doesn’t prepare them to move up the work force food chain.

Many observers are shocked at the child labor reported at Foxconn. Not only do these Chinese factories employ a lot of young people — the legal working age is 16 — but from what we saw on the ABC broadcast, all of these employees are young.

And this note David received from a person born in China, now attending school in the US gave me more pause:

My aunt worked several years in what Americans call “sweat shops.” It was hard work. Long hours, “small” wage, “poor” working conditions. Do you know what my aunt did before she worked in one of these factories? She was a prostitute.

Circumstances of birth are unfortunately random, and she was born in a very rural region. Most jobs were agricultural and family owned, and most of the jobs were held by men. Women and young girls, because of lack of educational and economic opportunities, had to find other “employment.”

The idea of working in a “sweat shop” compared to that old lifestyle is an improvement, in my opinion. I know that my aunt would rather be “exploited” by an evil capitalist boss for a couple of dollars than have her body be exploited by several men for pennies.

That is why I am upset by many Americans’ thinking. We do not have the same opportunities as the West. Our governmental infrastructure is different. The country is different.

Yes, factory is hard labor. Could it be better? Yes, but only when you compare such to American jobs.

If Americans truly care about Asian welfare, they would know that shutting down “sweat shops” would force many of us to return to rural regions and return to truly despicable “jobs.” And I fear that forcing factories to pay higher wages would mean they hire FEWER workers, not more.

Anyway, now my aunt has been living in New York for one year after saving up money for a plane ticket and visa, and she is wonderfully happy to have escaped Asia and reunited with our family. None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for that “sweat shop.”

I think it is far too easy for people–who are accustomed to a certain way of life–to look at other people, in different places, and think that if their standards are different, then it is a bad thing.

Based on American labor standards, and what we see as basic standards of decency, the Foxconn factory is a travesty. But for the Chinese, who are lining up in droves to work here, it may not be nearly as  bad.

I suppose my point is that the treatment of workers is relative.

This doesn’t just apply geographically–that is, for an American to look at a factory in China, and apply American labor standards to the Chinese factory. It also applies, perhaps more so, chronologically. And here is my legal hook. It is far too easy to look at a number of economic liberty/worker rights cases from the late 19th and early 20th century, and say, ohmawgawd, the working conditions in those factories/mines/bakeries were so horrible! Of course the state needed to step in to fix the situation, those employees are being exploited. How dare those courts get in the way. Well, the same cognitive bias that applies to Americans viewing Chinese factories applies to our view of poor working conditions a century ago.

How do I put this mildly. 100 years ago, compared to today, things sucked. The average life-span was much lower. Ideas of cleanliness and sanitation did not exist. Travelling from place to place, and exchanging information was arduous. Upton Sinclair wrote about an industry, appalling as it was, that fed millions of people. So to look at a photo through our 2012 eyes of over-worked coal miners or flour-coated bakers, or child laborers, it is far too easy to consider the situation from the wrong lens. Everything sucked more back then.

Take Lochner (the bogeyman of all con law scholars) for example. The actual facts behind the case are quite inconvenient to the pro-corporation Laissez Faire meme. Today, we simply see Lochner’s workers as exploited people who were forced to slave work at an oven all day, inhaling unhealthy flour. In reality, Lochner was an immigrant baker trying to compete with the entrenched interests. His workers, poor immigrants, wanted to work more hours, but could not. (Not too different from the applicants to Foxconn).

Anyway, my point is very narrow. When looking at things in other countries, we should not impose our own views on how they live their lives. By all means, people who want to improve labor conditions can and should do what they want to do. I just don’t get as worked up, when I take a step back to think about the relatively stations.

Update: The Times Economix blogs asks whether western activists really reduce child labor?

In my Economic Scene column on Wednesday I discussed how anti-sweatshop campaigns in the West to improve the lives of workers toiling in dismal conditions in the third world often do more harm than good — turning low-wage workers into no-wage workers by inducing multinational companies to pick up shop and move somewhere else.

Child labor offers perhaps the best example that big improvements in the workplace are always driven from pressure from within. Banning imports of products made by minors might make the people of San Francisco happy, but it has done very little to improve the lot of poor children overseas.

“There is very little evidence supporting any connection between trade and child time allocation other than through the impact of trade on the living standards of the very poor,” writes Eric V. Edmunds, an economist at Dartmouth College who directs the Child Labor Network at the Institute for the Study of Labor.

Most child laborers do not work in trade-related industries but in more backward areas of the economy — mainly in agriculture and retail trade. Some 300,000 children weave carpets in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, often for export. But this number pales next to the 8.4 million children ages 10 to 14 in India’s work force alone.

The good news is that child labor has declined sharply. In 2008, 176.4 million children under 15 around the world held a job, about 35 million fewer than in 2000. But the main reason for that is industrialization and economic growth. Income growth is the one dynamic that we know can persuade parents to take their children out of the work force and put them in school.

There are many unintended consequences to banning child labor:

Unfortunately, campaigners in the West often ignore this finding. Garment manufacturers in Bangladesh fired tens of thousands of children in the early 1990s after Senator Tom Harkin proposed banning all imports of industries in which children worked. But Unicef later reported that some had ended up in even worse jobs, as families had to make up for the lost income. A decade later, the International Labor Organization reported that 4.7 million Bangladeshi children under 15 worked, 2.6 million of whom did not get any schooling at all.

From the report:

No provision had been made for an alternative activity or income source for these children; and UNICEF later found some of them in other, worse jobs. Some had become prostitutes—although whether these workers had lost their jobs because of the so-called Harkin Bill or for some other reasons remains in dispute.