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What You Need to Know About Labor Conditions in China

What You Need to Know About Labor Conditions in China

“We are ill-treated and work like slaves.” 
“[We are treated worse than] horse cow goat pig dog. (sic)” 
“We suffer torturement, beat and rude remark (sic). Nearly no payment.”

These are the hand-written pleas of workers in Chinese factories, tucked away into a purse bought from Walmart, a shopping bag from Saks and a box of Halloween decorations from K-Mart.

Chilling notes like these have helped propel the unjust conditions in Chinese factories into the global spotlight. Investigations by China Labor Watch and other nonprofits have further exposed the harrowing work environments: the low wages and unpaid overtime, the toxic materials and ensuing health problems, the crowded on-site dorms and verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse.

And then there are the suicides. In 2010, 18 workers threw themselves from the top of Foxconn buildings, which manufacture electronic devices for Apple, Sony, Nintendo and HP. With suicide rates among factory workers gripping public attention, companies like Foxconn are starting to respond these pressures—in some cases, by installing safety nets on the outside of their buildings to prevent suicides. While this at least acknowledges a problem exists, it only addresses a symptom, not the real problem: the undignified treatment of employees.

The conditions of Chinese factories clearly reveal significant labor issues—but it’s more complex than that.

First of all, it’s a legal issue. Chinese legislation does limit overtime, yet the law seems to be routinely ignored. After all, if the bottom line is profit, why wouldn’t the government look the other way when its country exports over $400 billion in goods to the U.S. alone?

But it’s also a poverty and migration issue. While China has made remarkable progress in development and as a global economic powerhouse, more than 70 million people still live in poverty in China. For some, working in harsh conditions is the only alternative to their family starving. Experts suspect that the motivation of some of the suicide victims was the hope that their company would offer a generous settlement to their families, providing more financial support than their hourly wages ever did.

Due to poverty, many people in poor, rural areas migrate to urban centers in search of work. Some end up finding legitimate jobs. Others encounter unscrupulous brokers or employers who traffic them for labor in factories, coal mines or the sex trade. Thus, this is a human trafficking issue, too.

But perhaps, above all, it’s a relational and spiritual issue. Harmful working conditions are a reflection of harmful values: the belief that some people are worth more than others and that if someone is worth less they can be justifiably treated poorly, even violently. The real problem is that to some, making a profit is more important than a human life.

Doubtlessly, greater domestic advocacy is needed to strengthen labor and anti-trafficking laws, increase supply chain transparency, improve labor conditions and lobby for worker’s rights. And yet, these action steps are hampered within a national context where human rights defenders are persecuted, freedom of expression is squelched by censorship and torture and unfair trials are commonly practiced. Right now, three human rights activists in China are being detained or have gone missing while investigating austere labor conditions at shoe factory—the same one that produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s fashion label.

Given the barriers to interventions from the inside—not to mention its sprawling geographical size and burgeoning population—it’s clear that change in China will continue to take time. In the meantime, we cannot ignore the equally powerful response that comes from outside: led by us, the consumers.

Fast fashion and cheap electronics may feel like a win for us, but it always comes at the expense of someone else—the underage and underpaid Chinese worker who sewed your $5 t-shirt, for example. We may not be able to live perfectly ethical lifestyles, but there are ways all of us can avoid financing exploitation.

It’s not about boycotting all products with a “Made in China” label, because we have cheap goods manufactured by exploitative workplaces and through labor trafficking here in North America, too. It’s not only about being “against” something destructive, but being “for” something good. Buying from fair trade and ethical companies is one of those things, which makes a strong statement about the kind of world we want. It’s not just a trend—it’s good stewardship.

Here are some other ways you can stand for good:

  • Support a missionary or a reputable nonprofit addressing labor conditions in China.
  • Use mobile apps like Better World Shopper and Buycott as you shop to learn which brands to support and which to avoid.
  • Commit to purchasing ethically whenever you can. Fair trade has come a long way from jewelry and scarves—now there are ethically made iPad cases, bottle openers, body products, shoes and more.
  • Ask your church or workplace to serve only fair-trade coffee.
  • Participate in Freedom United’s online campaigns for fairer labor practices across the globe.
  • Read Urban Shalom to learn more about the theology of freedom and how this compels us to work for the freedom of others, especially those who are exploited or trafficked.

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