China: Factory Of The World Or Market?

Please watch this three minute video before we arrive in southern China (called “Factory of the World” – features a factory in the Taishan province) by the NY Times’ Nicholas Kristoff of China Wakes fame.

Two thoughts came to mind as I watched this video.

One, the NY Times is often criticized for being “too left”, yet in this video it’s the Times making the argument that the human rights criticism of these factories is overblown.

Two, the general thrust and point of the video has been my own experience. Most of the factories I have seen and visited in China I would grade as a low “B” or high “C” on the treatment of workers issue (I define a high “C” as satisfactory). A very, very small number I would give an “A”. I have been in a small number of D and Fs – they do exist and they are ghastly by Western standards, but to the extent the video argues most in China are not D and Fs, that has also been my own experience.

Also be sure to check out this subsequent blog post, “In Defense of 12 Hour Days”, that Kristof made about this video in response to those who disagreed with his praise for the Chinese town of Dongguan and his comments about the woman who works 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Very insightful, in my view. But also stuff that people won’t hear or listen to if they have their mind made up.

Finally, remember … before you lecture or preach to the Chinese on labor and factory issues, and to help you put the issue of the factory working conditions we will see in China into a comparative historical context and perspective, you must read this Wall Street Journal article, Lemonade Stands? Children Used to Toil 14 Hours, Every Day. See also this recent Daily Beast article, Before Condemning Foxconn, Americans Should Examine Their Own Labor History.

On the flip side and for a different perspective, check out this thoughtful and interesting Washington Monthly article I came across, Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector. And see also this recent C-Span broadcast (click HERE to watch the interview and segment – 7.30-24.0 = the China bit); this segment is an interview of Mike Daisey, the story teller behind the well received show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” (note in March 2012 Daisey was flushed out for having lied about certain things he said or represented in the show or in some of his interviews — a basic Google search will turn up some of the articles on this development and his mea culpa in response).

And back to the original question of this blog posts, “Is China the Factory of the World or Market?”

It’s both.

No debate on the first category (factory of the world).

Re: the second (market?), as an example, I recently spoke with a former Nike executive who noted that 80 percent of what Nike makes in China it in turn sells there in its domestic market. As a second example, see this Wall Street Journal article, Vespa Looks both Ways: China, India.

This Wall Street Journal article, For Some Manufacturers, There Are Benefits to Keeping Production at Home, also does a nice job highlighting for you what type of manufacturing moves to China and what type tends to stay home here in the US. To gain a feel for how the services industry and market for foreign firms is developing and set to take off in China, see this recent China Law Blog post, China New Investment Rules ….

This entry was posted in Blogroll , Uncategorized . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to China: Factory Of The World Or Market?

  1. Dan Noland says:

    I’ve go to be honest, I don’t know what to say here… I’ve written and subsequently deleted several comments. This is a tough issue and it’s hard to come up with something to say that isn’t cheap and superficial…

    It makes me sad that we live in a world of unequal wealth, liberty and power distribution. It isn’t fair that teenage mothers work 12-hour days in Chinese factories building the toys that Americans purchase for their kids with their unemployment checks. It also isn’t fair that their communist gov’t has propped up Chinese industry in ways that have created opportunities for Chinese workers not available to Burmese, Afghan, or Sudanese peasants. So, while the Chinese work long hours for meager wages, others have nothing better to do but shoot each other with guns and hack each other with machetes. So… do I think that Chinese workers are being exploited? Yes. Do I think that they would be better off overthrowing their government? Not in the short term.

    If I were Chinese I would be very grateful for the opportunities my government has created for me over the past decade. However, a decade from now I probably won’t be satisfied with the “glass ceiling” that will result from China’s centralized, corrupt system.

    I personally think that China is going to have a very hard time handling prosperity. The system isn’t set up for it.

  2. Cassie Bettencourt says:

    The Nicholas Kristoff video above and the subsequent blog posts and articles have shed some new light on Chinese “sweatshops” for me. What constitutes an actual “sweatshop” anyway? Although working 12 hour days and or 7 days a week is not ideal nor desirable for anyone, this is the best option given the alternatives for many of the people doing these factory shifts in China. I have always compared these factories to American standards and never thought to compare them to other underdeveloped or developing countries. The fact that China has these factories as an opportunity for its poor is a positive thing when viewed from this perspective. Even though I hope that these people are able to work their way out of poverty and I do not condone these working conditions, maybe our concern is, in fact, misplaced.

    I also appreciated the article and comment on historical context. As Americans, we have the rules, regulations, and opinions we do because we are a developed country and have been through much of what the Chinese are presently going through. It is very important to be aware of context before passing judgement. I do think that it is good that we are aware of and concerned with what’s going on other places in the world because, as one of the articles pointed out, it is hard to mind your own business in business in the era of globalization. I think there is a fine line that must be finessed by American judgement.

  3. Robbin Forsyth says:

    I really don’t mean to sounded jaded but… While there is some good information in these posts, none of this is new or surprising.
    China is in the midst of the same type of industrial revolution that the USA began 150 years ago. Everything works in cycles and China is on the upward part of the curve. What makes China such an exceptional case is its sheer size and complexity along with the speed of this contemporary cycle.
    The Chinese people are proving that the opportunity to work in manufacturing jobs is more beneficial than all other alternatives. Kristoff is right in that their lives are improving because of this. I agree with his critics that further improvements need to be made, but China is so big and complex that evolution is better than abrupt changes. The recent past, (1950-1970) was filled with a series abrupt attempts at changing the Chinese economy that all met with failure and dramatic consequences for the Chinese people. As the Chinese economy matures we will see more improvements in working conditions.

    China is the worlds market, but it is a very different market than any western country. The line from the China Law Blog – “The Easy Money Has Been Made” is very timely. I also believe that as the Chinese economy matures it will require a more sophisticated approach to selling in China. Branding and marketing strategies will need to be as finely honed for the Chinese market as any western country.
    GM is a good example of an American company that has a comprehensive long term approach to business in China. They have targeted a single brand, (Buick) for selling in China and have a completely separate, (and self financed) design, marketing and manufacturing subsidiary in China. Even as GM was going through domestic bankruptcy it was profitable in the China. The company will see a billion dollar profit from Chinese operations in 2010.

  4. Amanda Podesta says:

    I would think that poverty is worse than working and as long as the factory conditions are not endangering either employees or others (I think it was beneficial when airline pilots were capped at working only 10 hrs. straight) than criticism should be curbed and not used to create legislation that hems in a business’ ability to compete (as is the case in Europe’s limited hrs/wk and with America’s overtime/double-pay systems).
    When I think back to anyone I know who has run his/her own company successfully for more than 5 years, it seems that part of the winning formula is that he will have worked like a dog and put in longer hours than he could have afforded to pay himself to make his company successful.

    Similarly, all my friends working as consultants/investors who have either successfully worked their way up the corporate ladder or got their b-school paid for by their employer were working over 70 hrs/wk easily.

    … with this in mind, is it truly so foreign a concept in America that you have to work hard to get an edge over the other guy?

    In fact, the Chinese workers are very well aware that their most valuable assets are their hands and time. They are fully capitalizing on these assets and consequently proving to be more competitive than American/European factories from whom they have pulled the business contracts/employment from. Who’s exploiting whom?

    Also, I’m going to go out on a limb here and take the stance that as long as education opportunities are given their due priority, a kid with a job isn’t a bad thing. It is definitely not a determinant to a child’s development. In Barbara Walters’ memoir “Audition,” she says the one of her “foolproof” ice breakers for the over-interviewed is: “What was your first job?”
    Everyone remembers their first job as a kid and what they learned from it (mine was correcting school papers for the kindergarten teacher for gummi bears). It instills good values and teaches skills. Putting aside how it can help your family’s finances, it is an empowering first step towards knowing what you want to do (or don’t want to do), being responsible, respectful, and accountable to others.

  5. Tara Millard says:

    This video displayed working conditions that were in no means great but were also far from the wretched brutality I have previously envisioned. We all hear so much information about exploited Chinese workers slaving away in sweatshops. I am not saying this is an ideal job, but I would like to bet some Americans hit HARD by the recession would take this in a second.

    I work in the field of Construction and it is not uncommon for laborers to work 7 days a week for 12 hours a day. This may sound cruel, but believe me; in this tough economy they are fighting to work this amount of time. Until someone has experienced the despair of not being able to provide for ones own family, they cannot appreciate the joy of merely working.

    I am in no way saying that these workers aren’t exploited, because I believe they are. There government is becoming wealthy while keeping the civilian’s standard of living low. As Americans we may view these low wages as slave labor but the reality is that China is a different culture, and hard work is generally the norm.

    I was surprised to read that 80% of what NIKE produces in China is in fact sold in China. China may be the factory of the world but they are also a bustling market. China not only produces goods for export that are never enjoyed by the Chinese as many of us tend to believe. Rather they work as professionals to reinforce China as a Factory of the world, and they spend as individuals, consuming products that they deem necessary or dispensable.

  6. David Hart says:

    These articles and the video provide interesting insights into factories in China as well as the United States. For example, I find the topic of long hours and child labor to be challenging ones. I can see both sides of these issues. Like any subject, there is a lot of gray area. It is hard to say whether it is a good or bad thng. There are bound to be both positives and negatives. Is it a good thing for people to have opportunities to earn money to get themselves out of poverty? Or are the conditions to harsh? Are the workers exploited? What are the ethical implications? Again, there are no cookie cutter answers. It depends on the individual circumstances of the people as well as the conditions of a particular factories. These articles provide food for thought.

    The articles about the US were also insightful. It is interesting to note that there are still succesful manufacturers in America, particularly when it comes to higher end products. I think it will be interesting to see how manufacturing evolves in both the US and China in the future. With technology allowing for more transparency, I hope that conditions will improve and fewer workers will be exploited.

  7. Jessica Shayler says:

    Wow. After reading some of the comments to Kristof’s blog post, that’s all I have to say. Wow.

    Opinions are cheap and incendiary. Both Kristof and those who oppose him have a point, but neither will admit that. It reminded me of two things that form a dichotomy of sorts.

    First, when dealing with others, always assume the best.
    Second, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.

    The first speaks to Kristof and Robbin’s point that the Chinese are in the middle of a transition most developing countries went through and it is going to (and should) take time to work things out and bring working conditions to expected standards.

    The second speaks to Kristof’s critics who say the Chinese government is purposefully keeping working conditions low. Maybe. But is whining about it and attacking someone who’s actually interacted with Chinese citizens really going to make things better.

    Sometimes we get so caught up in outrage that we forget to actually act.

  8. Katie Moeller says:

    I do think this video portrays a different story than what I have heard or seen in the media. The American view is that the Chinese people are being exploited. It is a nice alternative to show that the “sweat shops” provide opportunities for the Chinese from rural areas. Nicholas Kristof points out that many of the people that work in these shops are doing so voluntarily to build a better life for themselves and their families.

    I must say it was good to personally see this video. The last video I saw in regards to “sweat shops” in China was in the Human Resources class and we watched a video about Wal-Mart. It showed the crowded, busy, and labor-intensive way of the “sweat shops.” It’s a sad portrayal showing how the Chinese workers leave their families and work long days. In this video it was showing the exploitation side because the workers were being treated like this so Wal-Mart could sell cheap products. The Kristof video portrayed another story which I think is important to see.

  9. Brady Haug says:

    Professor Carr, I am curious to know what grade you would give the elastic factory in the video. I worked for a medical manufacturing company where roughly 90% of the blue collar workforce was low paid Vietnamese workers. In the Clean Rooms, the sanitary rooms where medical devices are assembled, the work environment appeared to very similar to that of the one portrayed in the video. When I was observing the Clean Rooms they didn’t appear to be poor conditions. Though the tasks were extremely tedious, the environment didn’t remotely resemble a sweat shop. I would imagine one major difference would be in regard to the ergonomics of workstations. Though I’m sure there are plenty of factories with atrocious working conditions, it was interesting to hear insight from someone saying that globalization has had a highly positive impact on workers (particularly workers from the West) in China. A job in a factory such as this one is certainly better than working in a rice field, but companies should always strive to better the working environment for their employees, despite cost ramifications.

    Of the articles, I enjoyed the one by Cynthia Crossen most, “Lemonade Stands? Children Used toToil 14 Hours Every Day.” Before judging the working environments in Chinese factories, I think it is important to look back at our history. It is my opinion that China will slowly move closer to American labor standards. Just as we have risen from child labor and poor working conditions, I think China will do the same, but just at a radically slower pace.

  10. Chris Carr says:


    Good question.

    The video notes the factory is Hong Kong owned. Hong Kong owned factories tend to be ‘better’ and more ‘upscale’ than others.

    The rooms they show in the video look to be pretty solid, but without more info or me visiting the factory for a full walk about, it’s tough for me to give it a ‘grade’. This is because I look at the overall situation and condition of the factory, and a number of intangibles, and I do not focus just on one or two things that I may like or dislike.

    To see/understand more of where I am coming from on this, see and read the two blog posts below from a guy I know and respect (Dan Harris) based in Seattle that practices ‘China Law’ and whose firm also has a presence and footprint in China. I agree with his posts. He ‘gets’ the importance of the intangibles that many others miss that will tell more of the story of the factory when the Westerner is not present.




    Final point: I don’t think you will find many (any?) factories in most developing Asian countries that are as focused on ergonomics and avoiding things like carpal tunnel syndrome and buying the right chair for your back, etc., as we are in the West. They just are not there yet in their economic development and awareness (they feel they have other more important fish to first get to and fry). I.e., in my view we need to be realistic and have some view of history and economic development on this item in particular.

    I hope this answers your question.

    Prof. Carr

  11. Randy Camat says:

    I would like to echo what Katie said about the Wal-Mart sweatshop video that we saw in our HR class. I expected the same conditions to be shown in Kristof’s video, but I was surprised to see the clean work place and healthy-looking employees. It was a nice alternative video to that of the Wal-Mart sweatshop. However, I see where all the animosity is coming from. We as Americans are disgusted at the exploitations of cheap Chinese labor depicted in the Wal-Mart video, and see Kristof’s video as praising this exploitation with a warming story. In my opinion, Kristof is shedding light in what Americans see is a dark corner. I also want to highlight Kristof’s statement in his Defense blog, “Americans see exploitation, but Chinese see opportunity.” I believe since we’re a culture/generation/nation of immediate gratification, we expect things to change instantly. We say that these conditions – low pay, long hours, and harsh work environment – shouldn’t be tolerated, but Robbin points that China is going through the same changes as the US, which is highlight in the history lesson “Lemonade Stands? Children Used to Toil 14 Hours Every Day.” It allows us to take a look back at what we’ve gone through and helps put it into perspective of what China is currently going through. China is a factory – a production machine – to the world. If things are going to change it would have to be the elite that run the factory to make things happen.

  12. Kristine Spencer says:

    The topic of “sweat shops” has been a controversial topic recently. There are valid points to each side of the argument. I agree with the video that the positions are an opportunity to lift entire families out of poverty. On the other side, of course conditions and safety of factories should be monitored and constantly improved. Some of the workers in China are being exploited and I agree that this should be stopped. But as the video states, the US sees exploitation, and the Chinese see opportunity. The same range of working conditions can be seen anywhere; there are employers who treat their workers well, and there are some that do not. Even here in America we have all heard an employment “horror” stories by western standards. I’m specifically thinking of Wal-Mart and all of their employment issues. So I think that it is only natural, if the distribution is as Professor Carr can attest to, that most are satisfactory, but there are some above and below satisfactory. I thought it was very interesting that the narrator of the video stated that other countries in Asia, as well as most countries in Africa, would be LUCKY to have the type of manufacturing jobs that China has. Compared to other areas of the world, having a steady and decent paying job, by Chinese standards, is something that one could only dream of. The most important part of this whole discussion to me is personal choice. The woman featured in the video was choosing to work long hours in return for a higher income.

    The first comment on the previous post criticized the author saying that “The point is not whether the person in the article is heroic or whether she is doing what is necessary to survive in a horrific, ultimately destructive system designed to create incredible profits for a very few; the point is that no one should have to work under such a regime.” I couldn’t help but wonder if this person was from the US, where the wealthiest 25% of US households own 87% of the wealth. The statistics in the US for the top five and first percentiles are even more alarming. Based on that argument, the concern for Chinese factory workers is a bit hypocritical. In a sense, some workers even in the US, especially the most poor, work all their lives with little to show for it. While I agree that no one would, in an ideal world, want to work in those conditions, the factory workers are making sacrifices to better their lives and those of their families.

  13. Ashley Ogden says:

    Kristoff makes some excellent points in this video. I believe that for most of the workers, a factory job in Southern China is better than any of their other options. I think that the most important thing to remember is that for these workers, it is their choice to be there. It is not slave labor (from what I have seen). I am sure that there are those “D” and “F” factories out there that were described in “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector” and those perhaps are a violation of human rights. For the most part, however, these people are escaping an alternative life of hard field labor or even worse, no job at all.

    I liked the article “Lemonade Stands…” When American was younger, we didn’t think anything was wrong with long, work days. I think that we need to take everything into perspective before we judge China.

  14. Jason Jay Sharma says:

    When I was in high school, I spent a great deal of time learning about sweat shops, and Nike was always the main company of the topic. I clearly remember that I didn’t want to buy Nike products after watching numerous documentaries (I’m looking at you 20/20, Dateline, and those PBS one-offs). The pictures that were presented in those documentaries are burned into my mind to this day–low wages, children working, and the overall general harsh conditions.

    That being said, as years passed by, I gradually lost concern for sweat shops operating in Asian, mainly because I had more important things to worry about. When you’re so far removed from such a situation, it’s only natural not to worry about it as much.

    The links provided here proved one thing to me–sweat shops have generally become better than they once were. Also, these types of factories are the first steps in the development of a country like China, as proved by “Lemonade Stands?…” when they mention America during industrialization.

    The one thing that I am fairly confident of at this point is that all these factory workers are working these long hours, 7 days a week, in sometimes horrible conditions because they want to be there. Unless someone can offer workers better wages for easier working conditions, maybe no one should be pressuring these companies to change. As the sweat shop inspector found, many of these facilities are surprisingly better than you would expect.

  15. Matt Streiter says:

    What a roller coaster! All this time I have been told how bad working conditions are in China and sweatshops in general and now I am hearing they are not as bad as we think! To hear that Prof Carr thinks that factories on average are of B- or C+ quality gives me a new perspective from what I have always pictured. This is one reason why I am excited to see the factories when we go to China so I can finally form my own opinion and gain my own perspective on the quality and working conditions of these places.

    Being someone who hasn’t seen a factory outside of the U.S. I tend to believe a lot of the differing opinions are a result of different acceptable standards. For example, the women working 12 hour days, 7 days a week in the first video was by choice so she can provide more for her child. Although paying someone that little where they have to work that many hours to support their child may be unethical in our eyes, she does have the choice to not work that many hours. Additionally, the video states that the factory jobs are not the worst of the worst like they are made out to be here in the U.S.

    Regarding inspections, I feel that all of them should be unannounced . Really what is the point of going somewhere to inspect them if they can prepare for it? Additionally I believe the results should be made public and if consumers, like us in the U.S., are truly appalled and want to put to an end to it then the responsibility would lie on us to stop supporting those businesses. I feel like most consumers would rather go for the cheaper price though. Just as Walmart was called out in “Confessions of a Sweatshop inspector” it seems to have made a little impact due to their customers looking the other way. And this is even on top of all the publicity of them treating their own employees bad! I feel people want to be comforted while buying the super cheap item that was made overseas when in reality you can’t always have the best of both worlds.

  16. Will Moeller says:

    Articles and blog posts like these make me wish I had studied – or at least retained – more about American history.

    It seems that what’s going on in China right now is what America went through during the industrial revolution. Is it fair to say that these two events are completely the same? No. But can we draw comparisons? I think so.

    Generally, this involves comparing those in a poverty-stricken situation taking risky/dangerous jobs in exchange for an alternative to poverty. A picture that comes to mind is Lunch atop a Skyscraper by Charles Ebbets, taken in 1932. This, to me, symbolizes what American workers were forced to put up with before job safety reform and economic prosperity.

    These links get at the same point about China. Jobs in the Chinese “sweatshops” can be risky and dangerous. Nonetheless, they are jobs that improve the standard of living for most of the people that take them. At the same time, there’s the cost of risk with these jobs.

    In sum, reading about this elicits two emotions. First, I am ignorant of what sweatshops are really like. (I’m also ignorant of what dangerous jobs are really like). Second, I am interested (in a reluctant sort of way) to see what these Chinese factories are like.

  17. It is interesting how everything depends on your perspective. I grew up understanding that there are sweatshops in China and that they consisted of slave labor. Now, with videos such as the one by Nicholas Kristof, it seems that this view of mine was based off of the misguided perspective of someone else who disapproved of labor conditions in China. It appears that many people seem to forget our own countries struggles with child labor and unsafe conditions as expanded upon in the ‘Lemonade Stands’ article.

    Even as advanced as we think we are, we still have these types of long-hour factories here in the US. I read an article recently in Bloomberg Businessweek about the department store ‘Forever 21,’ talking about how they have scooped up a lot of prime real estate because of the financial crisis for their stores selling unbelievably cheap merchandise. The article continued to talk about how secretive the owners are and how they get away with selling designer knock-offs for such a cheap price. It was interesting because the company said the same types of things that Nike did: that they didn’t “know about and wasn’t responsible for the working conditions in these factories.” Again, while this is a somewhat legitimate excuse, there has to be some questions in the minds of the executives searching for manufacturers. The sweatshop inspector article talked about how the ones with the cheapest price usually are the ones who cut corners and bend the rules. The article goes on to break down the costs and wages of these ‘employees’ saying that only if they sew 66 vests and hour that they will make minimum wage, yet each vest is a knock-off of some designer and is being sold for under $14 to budget-conscious teens. I wonder if Kristof’s article applies to the ‘sweatshop’ conditions like this one in the US or just the ones in China. Is this type of work preferable to the proverbial work in a rice field?

  18. Tyler Sereno says:

    Kristoff did a good job of showing what Chinese sweatshops are really like in this video. I always pictured a sweatshop as a really dirty and poor factory with factory workers sweating all day, packed in there like sardines in a can. Americans think of sweatshops as a terrible place that forces young people to work all day. But you don’t know the entrie story, and this video informs us of the real story. Kristoff interviews some of the Chinese factory workers, and they state that it is their choice to work there. They get more money and are able to live much better lives because of the opportunities provided at these factories. The subsequent blog post to the video provides great responses to the people who believe the sweatshops are awful and exploit young Chinese people. I like Kristoff’s comment where he states that instead of working and sweating all day out in a field where they live in poverty, these Chinese people choose to seize the opportunity given at the factories where they do not sweat and they earn a lot more money. They choose to work hard in order to provide more for their families and they all seem happy in the video. These factories seem to be great for the Chinese people.

  19. Sarah Weinzapfel says:

    Like I’ve said in a few other posts, it’s all relative to the area. The 12 hour work days is something Americans see as exploitative, but as the article said working in these factories is better than their alternative. Some of the comments criticizing Kristof’s video said that no one should have to work in those conditions, but when America was industrializing, we worked in the type of conditions vividly described by Upton Sinclair. I don’t agree with dangerous working conditions, but like the video said, the workers choose to work 12 hours to provide something better for their children. I’m glad there are monitoring companies described in “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector”.

    I’m glad to hear that not all factories operate with these poor conditions. If someone compliments you every day and criticizes you once, you’re going to remember that one bad comment. People don’t focus on the good factories because it’s not interesting news. Therefore, the news we do see about factories, we assume about every factory in China. As long as we have monitoring companies that actually care and are making a difference, discussed in “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector”, suppliers and other factories will keep up with reasonable standards. It would be nice if there was some happy medium, however. The article talks about how the monitoring companies don’t change everything for the better such as firing a 14 year old girl who is desperate to work and will starve otherwise or end up working in a more dangerous factory. I think working standards should limit, to a certain extent, the amount of time people work, but mostly concentrate on the danger and health standards of the factory.

  20. j hurley says:

    I have seen factories like that located here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, and they are by no means only used in China. I think that the video makes a valid point that these Chinese workers are choosing to work in these factories and are doing so to prevent an even more difficult lifestyle if they were to do something else for a living.
    However, the factory shown in the video appears to be a very nice “Sweat Shop” and is most likely much nicer and worker friendly than the majority of factories in surrounding areas. There are much worse working conditions found in China and these are the true reasons why they were termed sweat shops.

  21. Jessie Wilkie says:

    “In Defense of the Twelve Hour Workday” was a really good, thought-provoking article. Kristof was essentially reprimanding judging Americans for sitting on their couches in the lap of luxury and condemning “unfair labor practices”. Kristof sort of does what Jon Stewart did minus the humor. When in all honesty, they were condemning people trying to make a better life for themselves. Like that woman who chooses to work 12 hour days so that her child can have a better life. These people are choosing to work in factories versus their other options, no one is forcing them. I’ve read elsewhere that often times people will work in a factory for a few years to send money home and save money, and then they will go home. I thought that Kristof did a good job with the article defending the video that he narrated.

    The video was also very good. I thought that I learned a lot in the 3:06 clip. Granted we only saw one factory, but it seemed clean and it got me thinking. I’ve never really thought about what factories look like in China and what they actually produce (elastic in this case). Also, I liked how Kristof referenced Africa. He stated that the nation could use factories to experience an economic boom. I think there is validity in this statement. I remember once I had an executive from Russel Athletics speak at my apartment in Santa Cruz and he brought up the fact that they were looking to move their apparel manufacturing from Honduras to subsaharan Africa because it would be cheaper. Yes, it would be cheaper because people would be willing to work for less.

    I also thought that the article on child labor was interesting. I knew there was child labor in the US, but I never knew the extent. This article just brought home the fact that industrialization and modernization didn’t happen magically or overnight and their benefits have not always existed. I also had never thought of children’s living conditions at home being worse than work conditions. Very good article to include in the blog references.

    In modernizing countries (and even modern countries for that matter), however, not everything is always flowers and sunshine, as demonstrated by the Confessions article. I thought that this was a good counterweight. I also think that the issue of bad factories must be addressed and I applaud organizations like the FLA and WRC that are working to do so.

    As for Vespa, I love them they’re so hip, but I thought it was very pragmatic of the company to manufacture and sell in BOP nations. Many companies are doing the same thing. I’m sure this will be a future trend.

  22. Kyle R. says:

    The video and subsequent blog created by Nicholas Kristoff really shed light on the reality that exists in China’s factories. Since I was young, I have heard about the sweatshops that were taking place in China, with very poor working conditions. This blog information shows that the worker in China can actually benefit as a result of the massive manufacturing boom taking place there. The people who would otherwise be living in poverty in the rural areas are now able to find a decent job at one of these factories. I understand that these factories are not up to the high standards within the United States, but they are still adequate when compared to the rough life of farming in the country.

    I believe that people outside can easily make judgments on the quality of life for the local Chinese without ever seeing firsthand what occurs in those factories. When I was very young, I remember working for neighbors, doing whatever they had for me. This would allow me to make money and then purchase what thought I needed. Then in high school, I worked 5-6 days a week after getting out of class until 10pm or so and I still wanted more work. My parents paid for my basic necessities (food, clothes, etc.), but anything I wanted for hobbies or interests, I had to purchase. I’m trying to emphasize that some people want/have to work when others aren’t flipping the bill for them.

    I know multiple people who worked here in SLO county when they were younger, picking vegetables or fruit, and their work seems absolutely miserable when compared to the factory setting in the video. Who knows how many people here locally work significantly more than 40 hrs/week… I’m sure many do for minimum wage or even less if it’s under the table. I’d also bet that there are many other situations similar to this, especially in the state of California. Similar arguments were presented in the WSJ article about working long hours not too long ago. Most of the factories in China are likely an opportunity for the locals to better the life of themselves and their family. I feel like there was/is this emphasis on Chinese being held “captive” in a sweatshop with horrible work and inhumane conditions. In my opinion, the Chinese are seeking improve their quality of life and they use the factories as a method by doing so. Their quality of life may not be what we expect here in America, but it’s still their best option… and they CHOOSE to do it. It’s easy to criticize, (similar to what prompted Nicholas’ blog response) from the comfort of your own computer in your house. If those people really cared though, why wouldn’t they give up all their luxuries and send their money to help the Chinese locals?

  23. Tim Easton says:

    The Kristoff video really changed my perception of Chinese sweatshops. The working conditions in the video looked fine, and I have seen factories here that appeared extremely similar. I guess I pictured sweatshops as being extremely cramped, dirty, and hot. The factory in the video looked clean, and honestly it didn’t appear that too many people worked there. I liked the line in the video where Kristoff says, “The fact is that when you are at a factory like this you don’t sweat”. He then brings up that point that working in a factory is a lot better than working in a rice field, doing construction, or digging through a dump. I completely agree with his argument. Chinese people are leaving there jobs at rice fields for factory jobs. Yes, they get more money working in the factory but that many people wouldn’t do it if the conditions weren’t at least satisfactory. Working 12 hours a day and 7 days a week is a lot for our US standards, but the woman being interviewed said that was by choice.

    The fact that 80% of Nike products made in China, were sold in China was extremely surprising. When you think of Nike it is not uncommon to think of sweatshops and the poor working conditions for their workers. My parents’ friend used to be Nike’s head of sales for South America, and I have talked to him extensively about Nike, so I was surprised that he didn’t tell me this. As Nike learned, running factories with poor working conditions can greatly hurt your company and it may not be worth it in the end. This also shows that China is becoming the world market, and Chinese citizens are now able to afford the products they are producing.

  24. Chris Bruns says:

    I agree with the point that the movements against sweatshops in China are misplaced and that as long as certain established conditions are met, than it isn’t our place as Western outsiders to judge. I am in no way advocating horrible conditions that put the health and lives of workers at risk, such as those described in the article Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector. However, as the son of a migrant worker, I know that my family chose to work long hours for cash than to farm and produce salt for trade. These factories provide real opportunities for rural Chinese, and rural Chinese are choosing to change locations and work. I also thought it was interesting when the point was brought up that workers don’t sweat in these factories, and that there are less pleasant opportunities as other options, such as toiling in fields and rooting through dumpsters. I also agree with the point that other countries, such as areas in Africa, would do well economically if they could begin to copy manufacturing boom of China. I also found the points made by the article Lemonade Stands? Children Used to Toil 14 Hours, Every Day were true and amusing, in that we often judge as a country, but not so long ago we had sub-par working conditions, and I know that in agriculture we still do. Additionally I found some of the points made in For Some Manufacturers, There Are Benefits to Keeping Production at Home very interesting, especially then one that states the manufacturing in the US is trending towards plants without people in them.

  25. Ben Raymond says:

    The factory shown in the video was much different from my perception of a “sweatshop”. I have always imagined a sweatshop being very dimly lit and overcrowded with the workers sweating profusely and inhaling large amounts of smoke and pollution. The factory shown in the video resembled factories that I have seen here in the U.S. While this may be one of the nicer factories in China I think Kristoff makes a good point about many factory workers seeking a large number of work hours to lift them out of poverty. It seems that work conditions and wages in China tend to be improving which fits with the industrial revolution trend. While the factory work may be strenuous and the hours long, from the information I have gathered it is still a large improvement upon the rice field type work that is the only other option for many of these people. Hopefully these conditions will continue to improve and the horrible foreign sweatshop stories that get a rise out of so many Americans will become obsolete. That being said, I find it interesting that so many Americans are willing to go to such great lengths to criticism companies associated with sweatshops when most of our low-end agricultural labor is performed by workers making much less than minimum wage and doing it for long hours in the blistering hot sun. Just something to think about

  26. Chris Fung says:

    The term “sweat shop” conjures up images of a dirty, hot, rundown, unsafe factory where people toil long hours, getting paid next to nothing making products for the capitalist societies of the world. China might have had this type of “sweat shop” when it opened its manufacturing ability to the world, but just as China has evolved these past decades, so have these “shops”. I don’t think China could have grown to be the number two economy in the world if it they continued to use the stereotypical sweat shop. They got to their position by listening to their customers (businesses and corporations) and modernizing, thereby producing factories that are leaps and bounds more productive than before.

    Sure there are probably the critics that complain that conditions are still not the greatest over there. While that might be true, it wasn’t that different about 100 years ago in our own country where workers (including children) worked long hours in cramped factories to make money for their families. My own ancestors came to the United States and had to work in factories or other jobs to care for themselves. They worked long hours to get that extra money for family or put themselves through school. My grandparents worked hard to achieve what they did and that is nothing different than what is going on in China. What China has been able to achieve with open market reforms has allowed the country and its people the opportunity to rise up and raise their standards of living, assuming the individual has the drive to do so. Compared to many African countries, China is world-class manufacturing.

    By the way, I also believe that China is the factory AND market of the world. To overlook China’s population of one fifth of humanity as a market would be foolish and those entrepreneurs or businesses that can gain entry into that market, they would have the opportunity for great gains.

  27. JP Salazar says:

    This was an interesting concept that has some deep rooted feelings for many people here in the US. Growing up, I can remember hearing all kinds of news and criticism about major companies like Nike and their taking advantage of cheap labor through sweatshops. There was a big push when I was younger aimed at not buying products from companies that took advantage of sweatshops. I can remember people on the news and at school demanding that companies like Nike be put out of business. While their arguments lasted for awhile, in the end it was the corporations that won out. While companies like Nike had to deal with some bad press and change their operating practices a bit to avoid such complications, they still continued to produce shoes and clothing using labor that was much cheaper than here in the US.
    What I find interesting about this whole concept is how entrenched people are regarding their opinion on this topic. China is a country with much different standards than our own. Where we see a sweatshop where workers are being taken advantage of, the poor, rural, Chinese see an opportunity to bring themselves out of poverty. This is the key to the varying views on these factory conditions. Compared to other developing nations, Chinese factories are an amazing opportunity. The US and China are not the same country and do not have the same levels of worker rights. But we as US citizens can not expect to push our own ideals and standards onto a country that is in a very different place developmentally. We can not judge China by our own standards.
    One thing I would like to know more about is how much prescreening factory conditions is catching on in China. It was mentioned that the real way to judge the seriousness and effectiveness of a company’s concern with labor rights is when they decide to screen their contractors. I would just like to see if this trend is catching on, and if it is, what the results on factory conditions are.

  28. J Vail says:

    I feel like a lot of spoken criticism against Chinese sweatshops is done by people who read a quick summary of the conditions without actually going to these factories. Robbin makes a good point that this was very similar to the industrial revolution and back then Americans would have been glad to be given an opportunity for 12 hours of work. The dissonance occurs now that people who live in developed countries look over to China and say that conditions here are much better, but the reality of the situation is that China has different economic constraints, and factory employment is the most stable form of growth.

    The most important comparison that Kristoff makes in the video is when he says ‘sweatshop’ is an inappropriate term because it is the only job option for a poor farm worker that doesn’t involve actually sweating. It also made me think in light of the comparison to the industrial revolution that conditions in Chinese factories are much better than American factories use to be (and at least equal to how they are now). I wish short videos like these got more exposure because they get the point across and correct popular misconceptions.

  29. Omar Pradhan says:

    Factory of the world, no doubt about it…market of the world too. I was initially struck by the Kristoff video. His position only makes sense to me to the extent that the workers in China are truly mobile. If they are tied down to a home or if the factory keeps their id’s or withholds their pay for several months, etc….then no way. The Confessions of an inspector article summed up my thoughts exactly: “when in doubt, doubt.” My experiences sampling the quality of a military flight training contract mirrored those detailed by Frank, i.e. The conventional wisdom of my unit was: “you can expect that which you inspect…” I find it refreshing to think that consumers are becoming more consciously aware of the true costs of the goods they are purchasing. I also liked the point raised that we ought to be demanding AND enforcing labor standards in our trade agreements. Lastly, the Vespa article really illustrated the extent to which the BRIC countries are increasingly growing their middle class and appetite for goods. Should their enormous consumer base also begin to demand healthier, safer, sustainable, humanely produced, etc…goods, we might be onto something.

  30. Grant says:

    I think the essence of the issue of the ethics of the working conditions in China can be best understood when you realize that the Chinese are no different than any human who wants a better life, and the decision to work hard in a factory represents a way to a better life, AS COMPARED WITH THE ALTERNATIVE, which is a life of rural survival. As westerners, we can easily condemn the conditions when comparing them to ours, but our conditions are not an alternative to these Chinese.
    It is not unlike the Europeans who left their motherland to come to America in hopes of working hard to make a new life for themselves. I’m sure the conditions were horrible for the immigrants from Ireland, Itally, Poland, you name it, but it was the ticket to a better life, WHEN COMPARED TO THE ALTERNATIVE. The critics can throw stones, but they are few who can actually offer a viable alternative.
    Mike Daisey is an interesting and entertaining character. He made one interesting point, which is that he feels the debate of Socialism vs. Capitalism has faded into the past, and the debate which has more current relevance is the debate of where power is to be held: with Nations or with Corporations. I think now that corporations are multinational, they can be at times more powerful than nations.
    So for me, the question is, “If multinational corporations can be more powerful than nations, how then do I carve out the future for myself and my family”.

  31. Kevin K. says:

    It is easy to sit back as Americans and judge these sweatshops for their treatment of workers and their style of performing business — although it is American companies that are taking advantage of the costs despite what some may call their immoralities. However, with China it is hard to argue against the results. Like the first video stated, the opportunity for many of China’s citizens to move from a rural and impoverished sector of the country to the industrialized is one they are certainly willing to jump at. If not sweatshops, what else? Granted 12 hours a day seven days a week sounds rough, but the pay vs. working in a rice patty or scavenging is well worth it to people who have known nothing other than being poor in a less modern environment. Plus, this also sets up the opportunity for the progeny of such workers to have a better opportunity: E.g. education, future jobs, etc.

    Another thing that struck me was the suggestion that Africa take note at what China is doing, and in fact model itself after the industrialization and factory ways of China. I thought this was a brilliant suggestion and idea, one that underprivileged countries should look to to improve their living conditions.

    From watching this video I feel like the term “sweatshop” has a negative connotation — which should be only used in what Prof. Carr called as D or F rated factories. For factories like the one featured in the Times video, maybe a more apt term in describing them could be created. Perhaps just hard workshops?

  32. Vladimir says:

    How a person views the impact of the factories depends on his or her perception of what is best for society. What does one value more – Equality or standard of living? Individual freedom of choice or surrogate decision-making by experts? One person can look at the Chinese factories and see the owners or those who contract the factories exploiting the workers. After all, Chinese workers’ wages are low compared to American wages, the working conditions are worse, and there are fewer safety requirements. And some of the cost savings end up in the pockets of people who can do without the extra money, while lower prices allow consumers to save a few bucks they could afford to spend. Another person will look at the situation and see the factories giving the people another choice, an alternative to lower paying work. To someone with the latter view, the factories have no power over the workers because they give the people options, rather than limit them. It’s better to have a choice between bad and worse than a choice between too good to be realistic and worse. The workers are making their decisions based on what they value.

    One person who commented on Kristof’s “In Defense of 12-hour workdays” said that, “[The woman in the video] should be able to work less so that she can spend more time with her family.” This person doesn’t know how much the woman values family time. Another person commented that “The point is that no one should have to work under such a regime.” Talking about what should be does not answer the question of whether the workers are better or worse off with the option to work in manufacturing.

    There are situations, however, where a factory could be hurting people under both views. For example, a factory that misrepresents the safety of their positions to potential hires or restricts the workers’ freedom to leave could be doing more harm than good. I was surprised that safety is such a low priority to some companies. Do the factories do a long-term cost/benefit analysis of providing safer working conditions, or is it all about saving every penny today?

  33. Daniel Fleek says:

    The first video “Factory of the World” by the New York Times was releiving to me in a sense because I had always thought that factory life in China was similar to what it was like during the Industiral Revolution in America. It was nice to see that those workers seemed to be satisfied and that many of them work long hours so that they can make more money. This is a point of interest in people who feel like Chinese workers are mistreated. However, I can understand how someone would want to work more. In fact, in many jobs in the US, people would want to work more to make more money, but due to economic concerns of a company, often, these workers are told they cant work overtime hours. I also agreed that impoverished countries in Africa would be happy to have a system like China in place because even though it may not be the best life, often times it is better than if these workers didnt work in the factory. Therefore, I believe that being the factory of the world can be a good thing especially if their are large amounts of people with little or no income.

    I also found the article on the Vespa’s interesting. It was cool to see the opportunity that Roberto Colaninno saw in bringing Vespas to India and China which shows that China itself is also a market. I thought it was a great idea since the streets are so crowded in those countries and the benefit of having a motorized scooter was probably huge in getting places in a timely manner. Overall, I think it is impressive that companies are starting to find opportunities that lay within the country of China instead of just using the cheap resources that China provides to sell products to countries like the US.

    I thought that Mike Daisey was risking a lot when he showed up the front gate of Foxcom. I feel like it would be hard for the Chinese security to not see him there with his interpreters. I thought that the fact that the workers had never thought about how the factory could be better was odd. If it was a really bad work environment, I would think that this thought would enter someones head. However, maybe this is a cultural phenomena where the Chinese workers simply follow their superiors orders with little thought. Overall, I didn’t think Mike Daisey was a very good journalist. Instead of just remembering in his head the 100’s of interviews he conducted with these workers, I wish he would have recorded it as evidence. Overall, even though he had a few facts about how China is the factory of the world such as the fact that Foxcom provides 52% of electrical equipment to the world, I felt like he could have done a better job with the investigation. Therefore, I found it hard to be convinced by him about how bad it actually is working at the Foxcom world factory.

  34. Kevin K. says:

    Thought this was an interesting article about Apple products and sweatshops:

  35. Charles Dornbush says:

    There is a lot of information is this post to digest. That being said, China is certainly the factory of today’s world. I agree with Kristoff’s take that many Chinese are better off to come to the cities and escape a life farming for subsistence. It is easy for Americans to think they know what’s best for a Chinese factory worker on the other side of the world. But I suspect if we were suddenly faced with the same decision, we would be pleased to have the opportunity to work 80 hours a week to feed our families. While these factories have for the most part have raised the standard of living for the Chinese, it can’t be ignored that some factories are dreadful and do exploit workers. The truly horrible factories though are in the minority.

    Frank’s article of the experiences of a sweatshop inspector show how factory owners and sometimes American corporations can facilitate an environment where labor violations occur. It showed that some of the worst factories in China are linked with the low-cost retailers, particularly Wal-Mart. Only 26% of their inspections were unannounced? It seems that Wal-Mart doesn’t just not care about what goes on in its factories but really doesn’t want to know.

    The third main piece was the Mike Daisey video. Although I appreciate his concern for the labor conditions in China, it seems he could do a lot more if he really wanted to change things. Taking worker’s responses ‘in his mind’? Really? I think taking some harder evidence would persuade more people to cause. It was very eye-opening to hear about a factory of 430,000 workers! That’s close to the population of some U.S. states! Seeing a factory would like Foxcom’s would be incredible for our class.

  36. Jeffrey Brown says:

    Wow, lots of information there. It seems there are so many opinions and stories on the working conditions in China that there really is no one mainstream view of it. The reason being is likely due to outsiders attempting to take the western view of China working conditions. In my opinion, it is not possible for us to determine whether those conditions are desirable or not because of one simple reason – we are not Chinese! While it is true that there are certain things that must be avoided (pretty much anything that would damage one’s health) it is not our place to say whether a fourteen year-old should be working in factories or whether working 12 hours a day 7 days a week is acceptable.

    Workers’ safety should be of utmost importance and be a “do-or-die” issue regarding companies in the U.S. doing business with factories in China. Other labor issues such as minimum age of laborers, pay, and working hours should be left to the Chinese to figure out and oversee. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that if working conditions are found to be unacceptable, the alternatives are likely worse if they even exist.

    As for China being both a world factory and a world market, darn right it is! With over 1.3 billion customers, it would be unjust to say that the country is not a world market. The fact that 80% of Nike’s production is sold domestically in China surprised me at first, but it makes sense. I have to wonder what kind of profit margin Nike receives from domestic Chinese sales vs. those in the United States. Is there a huge gap due to westerners being more wealthy, or is Nike able to maintain comparable margins?

  37. Georgia says:

    It is easy for Americans to hear about sweatshops and say something that boils down to “Why don’t the factories have better conditions? They should fix their problem.” But are Americans willing to sacrifice a larger chunk of change to make this happen? Probably not. Pushing the blame onto the Chinese is unfair. As seen in the “Factory of the World” clip there is no white and black areas. Yes, 12 hours a day 7 days a week seems astronomical, but that isn’t my only way to pull myself forward. Nicholas Kristof argues that a woman can make 800 yuan in a factory, compared to 100 yuan elsewhere. It sounds like the majority of other jobs (especially rural) are equally labor intensive.
    T.A. Frank gives a first-hand account of factory inspections. I liked how he was honest and didn’t act as though he was perfect. He acknowledged that he had missed pregnant women on roofs and blatant abuse. I can’t imagine how the really bad sweatshops were, and having seen as many as he has. I liked his idea for Congress to shame those companies that factories did not comply. I have always thought that social humiliation is a huge motivator, especially if that translates into a loss of profits.

  38. Keith Cody says:

    China has yet to have their worker revolt. France, America and England had theirs more than 200 years ago. The Arab Spring is blooms again this year. Chinese workerss will toleration 12 hour days, 7 days a week for many years, but eventually they’ll revolt. The Chinese robber barons are even more wealthy that the new ones in America. Just today, MarketWatch said China is a ticking time bomb.

    China’s lead to the modern world seems to have avoided the evilness of America’s and Britain’s industrialization: the wide spread use of child labor. 12 hours, 7 days a week seems exploitative. As farmers, these Chinese workers were probably use to the same kinds of hours. It will be interesting to see if China follows the modern trend of working less hours per week as your affluence grows.

    Kristoff’s book sounds very interesting. I will try to read China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power

  39. Ashley Tyra says:

    Even though many Americans are completely against any form of Chinese ‘sweatshops,’ the development of factories is part of what is bringing Chinese people out of poverty. To the workers in some of these factories, although the hours are very demanding, the overall gain is helping them. Working in places like the ones shown in the video has allowed them to make money to support their families. The conditions of such factories are not up to the standards of their American counterparts, but they are not the sweatshops we picture. When it comes to these factories, Americans see exploitation, but the Chinese see opportunity.

    I think it is important to remember where all of our products come from – as Mike Daisey said Foxconn makes over 50% of the world’s electronics. Although some factories are not good, we need to educate ourselves and realize that not all factories are evil either.

    Until Americans realize that our habits are fueling the situations created in China, there is nothing that can be done about having factories that don’t treat workers well.

  40. Fred S. says:

    There are both positives and negatives associated with what the factories in southeast China offer their workers. From the comfort of our couches in America, it is easy to say that the factory environment in China is inhumane. However, it is usually the worker’s desire to work in these factories because it provides better conditions than the work they would be doing in their hometowns of rural China. Many of these Chinese factory workers see opportunity at the factories and work as many hours as they can to jumpstart their journey out of poverty.

    Yes, the conditions at the unsatisfactory factories are not the best, but I believe they will get better. Like the progression of workers’ rights in the west, I believe a similar case will happen in China. As working in factories becomes more the norm, and workers move up through the ranks and become more educated about the global manufacturing environment, there will be more pressure on improved factory conditions. Overall, I would say that the factories provide many great opportunities for impoverished Chinese citizens and the working conditions can only get better from here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *