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The Final Piece of the Low-Wage Puzzle: Nonunion Labor

  • Each eyelash was assembled from 464 inch-long strands of human hair, delicately placed in a crisscross pattern on a thin strip of transparent glue. Completing a pair often took an hour. Even with 14-hour shifts most girls could not produce enough for a modest bonus. “When we started to work, we realized there was no way to make money,” said Ma Pinghui, 16. “They were trying to cheat us.”

    She and her friend Wei Qi, also 16 and also a Chinese farm girl barely out of junior high school, had been lured here by a South Korean boss who said he was prepared to pay $120 a month, a princely sum for unskilled peasants, to make false eyelashes. . . . Two months later, bitter that the pay turned out to be much lower, exhausted by eye-straining and wrist-wrenching work, and too poor to pay the exit fee the boss demanded of anyone who wanted out, they decided to escape. But that was not easy. The metal doors of their third-floor factory were kept locked and its windows—all but one—were enclosed in iron cages. . . . Said Ms. Wei, “What they called a company was really a prison.”

    The New York Times11

Any complete discussion of China’s low-wage contribution to the China Price must necessarily include the observation that labor unions are banned in China.12 On the surface, this may seem to be a good thing to many people. After all, labor unions have earned a bad name in many developed countries—particularly because many unions have used their bargaining power to lock employers into contracts and pension plans that eventually render them unable to compete.

That said, it is equally true from a broader historical perspective of the union movement that when individual workers lack representation on the most basic issues of health and safety, exploitation cannot be far behind. This is certainly true in China, where any form of worker dissent or attempt to organize are certain to be met with beatings, demotions, dismissals (referred to as becoming “fried squid”), and even torture.

In the absence of any union representation, many Chinese workers are forced to endure some of the most dangerous, repetitive, and oppressive working conditions in the world. Part of the problem is a form of corporate organization that has its roots in the commune structure and a culture in which many Chinese have grown up under Communist rule.

In the new capitalist variation, many workers are housed in dormitories, are forced to work 12- to 18-hour days, and are steeply fined if they attempt to take unauthorized vacation time or quit. Predictably, some have likened such dormitories to “slave camps.” It is not, however, locks on the doors or bars on windows that make many Chinese factories “prisons.” In many cases, the chains that bind workers to these factories are real economic needs in the face of a seemingly paradoxical massive unemployment problem and grinding rural poverty.

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