Tuesday, April 03, 2007

China Blue

I just finished watching China Blue on PBS - a documentary about a factory in China making blue jeans. Even though I spent 4+ months in China, I was stunned by what I saw. A 17 year old girl left her farming family with 100 RMB (about $12) in her pocket to find work in a far-away city. She found it at the Lifeng factory, where she not only worked, but also lived in the factory dormitory, sharing a room with 11 other girls - not women, but girls as young as 14 years old. Among the revelations that stick in my mind:

  • She earned only about 6 cents per hour
  • Minimum wage and overtime laws were completely ignored. She often worked 15 hour shifts, and sometimes more than 24 hours in a single shift - with no overtime pay.
  • Unions and strikes are illegal. Anyone attempting to organize would likely be jailed. Thought China was a communist/socialist country? Think again.
  • The factory owner said, categorically, his rural workers are not only uneducated, but cannot be educated and cannot learn a work ethic.
  • Workers' first months pay is withheld as a "security deposit", and they are never paid it unless they receive "permission" to leave the factory, which of course they are never granted.
  • She worked more than 3 months before receiving her first pay. In the meantime, she had no money. Need medicine? Sorry, you're SOL.
  • Under public pressure, the international companies that buy from China started sending inspectors to verify working conditions. Factories know in advance when the inspectors are coming, and coerce workers into lying about working conditions and pay to keep the inspectors satisfied.
She and all her coworkers were virtual slaves of the factory, rarely leaving the premises. During one long shift, she left to buy an energy-boosting tea (for 6 cents) from a street vendor. She was fined 2 days' wages for leaving.

You can't pin all the blame on the evil factory owner here, though. He faces intense competition from within China and elsewhere, and he couldn't possibly compete if he were to follow national labor laws - as long as other factories continue to break the law.

I'm sure many of my own clothes were made in China. And there's no doubt that working conditions in other countries - India, Pakistan, wherever - are just as deplorable. So what to do? I suspect it would be pretty difficult - and fairly expensive - to fill my closet with clothes that don't weigh so much on my conscience.

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