Why WalMart can sell us such cheap shoes and toys

Thanks heavens for cheap labor. And many thanks to ESWN for the translation of this hugely upsetting article. I see this as an act of murder, or at least negligent homicide.

“I’m very tired …” Late at night on May 30, a 35-year-old female named Gan Hongying who worked at a garment factory in the Haizhu district of Guangzhou city died in a rented apartment. The doctor’s note: Cause of death is sudden death. Prior to this, from May 27 to May 30, the factory was in a rush to complete a job and Gan Hongying worked from morning past midnight every day. During the four days, she worked 54 hours and 25 minutes, including 22 hours of overtime work. When she was alive, she frequently mentioned that “I really want to catch a good sleep.” Gan Hongying used to be a female teacher in Sichuan, but came down south to work when the kindergarten was closed.

35-year-old Gan Hongying (originally named Feng Hongxia, but she later changed to her mother’s last name) stopped breathing in the rented house.

It was 11:59pm on the night of May 30, one minute before the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Two and half hours ago, she spoke her last words to her sister Feng Yuzhu: “I’m very tired. Give me the door key. I will go and take a rest at your place.”

At the Xinhai Hospital, the doctor wrote on the patient’s record: The patient’s “cause of death: sudden death.”

….On early morning of May 31, the reporter went to the factory dormitory at number 40 Lujiangxi road. The workers from more than 10 garment factories around Lujiangxi road sleep here. There was filthy water all around and the stench was disgusting. We followed the long and dark staircase up. After some twists and turns, we arrived at the room of Gan Hongying. The room was probably proximate to a waste water ditch, so the stench was particularly strong. The room was filthy, without even a single light. The roommates recalled that because they worked overtime so often, they were usually very tired when they came back. Since Gan Hongying used to work as a teacher, she probably had never worked so hard in her life. Therefore, her fatigue was particularly obvious. 15-year-old female worker Xiao Xia slept on the next bed to Gan Hongying, and she said that Gan often got colds: “She said that she only wanted to rest well and get a good sleep.”

At 4:30am in the morning on May 31, the space in front of New Wave Star factory was empty. When the woman guarding the front door said “We just finished working,” the accompanying factory person gave her a look to stop her from saying anything further. At the end of the factory line where Gan Hongying worked, there was still a whole basket full of unfinished materials. Several workers told the reporter privately that the workers at this factory usually sign in at 9am, pause at 11:30am, and return to work from 12:30pm until 5:30pm. Then they go into overtime from 6:30pm onward and usually end at midnight.

The workers say that they are fined 20 yuan if they show up late. If there is a rush job, “they get off whenever the work is done,: Several workers said the factory locks the gate so that the workers can only leave when they finish. If they do not finish, the workers will have to pay for the unfinished products. “In order to make money and not get penalized, we have to keep working hard.”

Globalization. It raises so many questions, like, “Wouldn’t you be willing to pay a little more for those shoes to know that no one had to undergo enslavement or death to make them?” When all that matters is competition and cost cutting, where does humankind come into the equation? Whatever happened to the quaint notion that part of a company’s purpose was to contribute to and nourish its community? Whatever happened to the quaint notion that people matter? We can repeat until we are blue in the face the hackneyed adage, “Our people are our greatest asset.” But it’s alie; it runs counter to today’s global business model, where the main mission is to get rid of as much human capital as possible, and to pay the remaining bodies the lowest amount possible (which means, send the work to China).

I have no solution to the problem. All I know is that it’s an enormous problem, and that today’s “cutting-edge, out-of-the-box, best-in-class” business models contradict what business should really be about.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

Surely the problem isn’t globalisation, but the lack of human rights and right of unions in China. Were there these rights, workers would not be abused in this way and these tragedies would not happen.

June 4, 2006 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

Read this excellent series in the LA TIMES about Walmart. The problems caused by mega-companies like Walmart go beyond lack of human rights in places like China (though lack of workers’ rights in general certainly play a role).

I think there are better ways to globalize, but can we achieve those? And how much of the turmoil is inevitable in a globalized world, regardless?

June 4, 2006 @ 10:29 pm | Comment

Si, globalization plays a big role in the diminution of worker’s rights, as all the focus is placed on being “lean and mean.” China isn’t the only place where there are sweatshops, and globalization makes sweatshops increasingly inevitable. Go and read the stories from the link Lisa provided (requires registration – quick and worth it) to see how globalization encourages dirt-cheap labor.

June 4, 2006 @ 10:49 pm | Comment

Richard, I’m going to second what Si said: even without globalization, these kinds of horror stories would persist because workers don’t have adequate protections in China. And it’s not just light manufacturing, either. I’m appalled by the way workers are employed by Chinese construction firms, and the umpteen thousand apartments they are building at any given day (and night) in China. The same holds true for most agricultural enterprises. If you have to do a manual labor job in China, life can be hell.

(As for other countries and the effects of globalization, I cannot speak from experience or observation.)

June 4, 2006 @ 11:20 pm | Comment

i agree with you!
i think businesses are geared to cutting costs of production for more gain but to the expense of the laborers.
i have worked with one big American company who is engaged with the retail business in the US. they make sure that the workers of their suppliers are giving the legal wage and that the work environment will pass a certain standard or else they will cut business with these suppliers. i think all business should have this kind of concern for the laborers, after all, they are humans too who deserve to work and live in a work place which is conducive to human standards.

June 5, 2006 @ 12:24 am | Comment

Yes, working conditions in China are deplorable. And thanks to globalization, we Americans are giving employers in China (and other nation’s without worker protection) all kinds of incentives to work these people literally to death. Would these people be worked to death anyway, even without globalization? Maybe. But we in the West wouldn’t be bankrolling the enslavers and making them rich. Is it right for us to be doing so? I have serious doubts about it, though there’s little I can do about it. For one thing, I refuse to ever shop at WalMart.

June 5, 2006 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Shop at Costco! They pay their workers well, plus health care.

June 5, 2006 @ 12:39 am | Comment

Rich, I think globalization does lead to this type of suffering due the increased competition. The EU too will sooner or later have to change their labor laws to be able to complete in the global marketplace.

Everywere, companies are incentivized purely to improve their bottom line however. So what matters are the and therefore what people tolerate in those countries. That’s where the China labor laws come in to play.

Walmart for example, is often compared to Costco in the US. The latter offers healthcare for 95% of its employees according to the book “The World is Flat”, leading to a low circa 2% operating margin. Walmart however, gets the praise of Wall street as they get 5% margins by nickel and diming its own employees. It turns out that a large fraction of Walmart employees are on Medicaid, welfare, both. The net effect is that the US government is subsidizing Walmart’s operating margin.

My point is that in the US, if it hits the news that Walmart is leading to a bunch of Walmart employees have been dying of exhaustion, there would be a public outcry, and the company would be forced to re-examing their practices. In China apparently it’s not an issue because people are conditioned not to advocate for their rights but rather to just take one for the team.

June 5, 2006 @ 2:59 am | Comment

The trouble with this whole issue, is that what we percieve as poor labor standards (I shouldn’t use percieve, they ARE poor standards) have historically been the reason WHY globalisation works. I’m disgusted with it too, and many people have brought up the fact that China needs better labor laws. I second that. However, to what extent? For many people, what we see as low standards may very well be better than anything they’ve ever had, and may be the only way these people can even find jobs. China is going through the exact same phase of economic development that Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea all had to go through. Does anybody here really think that these countries never had labor situations just as disgusting? But they all pulled out of it, because by utilizing their cheap labor, they brought jobs to their people, who slowly became smarter and richer, and now are shipping off THEIR labor jobs overseas.

I remember wikipideaing this a while back, and I learned that an American boycott on rugs produced by child-labor in Nepal in the 1990’s basicly led to 7,000 kids going back to their old jobs: prostitution. I think nearly all chinese in these jobs probably used to be much worse off.

However, China is still a case of its own, and DOES have numerous loopholes that elliminate the possibility for better standards on a small scale (slavery is still around, lack of union rights, lack of freedom of speech). But on the whole, I think most chinese in the low-wage market are better off because of the jobs we think suck. And history has shown that economic growth nearly always gives better labor standards as time goes on.

June 5, 2006 @ 5:43 am | Comment

This isn’t too different from sweatshop conditions in New York city at the turn of the 20th century. Was “globalization” at fault back then as well?

June 5, 2006 @ 7:49 am | Comment

I echo Si’s sentiment. It has nothing whatsoever to do with globalization. It is the fault of the greedy factory owners who are not willing to provide their workers with a decent living because they want to make more money short term. It is the fault of the Chinese government who refuses to enforce their labor laws. I, for one, will continue to shop at WalMart.

June 5, 2006 @ 12:05 pm | Comment

Skystreaker, thanks for pointing out the extent to which the public sector and the American taxpayer are subsidizing Walmart. This has been one basis for local laws passed to keep Walmart out of communities. Walmart’s low prices come at a real price to society.

June 5, 2006 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

Read your excerpt twice. Failed to see any mention whatsoever of Walmart.

Did Gan Hongying’s factory supply WalMart? Not that I can see.

Hmmmm, wonder where that headline came from?

Did the dead woman’s employers supply ANY US retailer? Again, there’s no evidence of that in this post.

OK, forget Walmart or any other US employer.

Is her CHINESE employer responsible for her death? Nothing posted here indicates that they were either.

Gan Hongying worked the same hours as US big law firm associates and investment bankers and — like most everybody in China — live in less than pristine sanitary conditions. Then she died. What is your point?

Did bird flu, TB, AIDS, cancer or heart disease kill her? Did over work? Who knows? Clearly no real autopsy was done.

So, to sum up, a Chinese woman, living in China, working for a Chinese company with no disclosed connection to any US retailer, dies of causes unknown.



I wonder what the health and life expectancy statistics are for those employed by Chinese companies supplying WalMart, compared to those unable to get such jobs that working as pig, chicken and rice farmers in the provinces?

[sentence deleted for grotesquely uncalled-for personal insult of another commenter]

Does anyone here think at all?

June 5, 2006 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

Good to see you back, Conrad! Where have you been hiding out?

No, no thought is permitted here. Only hackneyed clichees and tired liberal slogans.

Actually, I mention Walmart simply because it’s the archetypal US company that thrives on dirt-cheap foreign labor, fucking its own workers at home and guaranteeing continued slave-labor conditions overseas for the factories that make its wares. We get great prices on WalMart shoes and toys because they drive prices ever lower and lower by forcing more out of workers and giving them less and less.

I like your “slave labor is good for you” mentality. These people would be even worse off without the slave labor conditions, so they should just shut up and be grateful. Even if we work them to death. Now, this is a difficult thing to argue. Many of these workers would probably say Yes, I am glad to have this job, despite the horrors. Same with a lot of the miners digging in illegal and famously dangerous Chinese coal mines. That won’t stop people like me from criticizing the mineowners, who treat these workers like expendable commodities whose deaths count for nothing.

Bo, I don’t believe the comparison of today’s labor conditions in China with the US are historically accurate. I’ve read Sinclair’s The Jungle and Emma Goldman and Ida Tarbell; I have read about sordid working conditions, of locking the doors of workers’ dormitories, resulting in ghastly deaths by fire, etc. Each of these incidents resulted in marches and mass movements which, in a relatively short time, led to massive public outrage and monumental labor reforms. And while working condition were ugly, I rarely if ever have read of any that compare to those I read about in China on a daily basis, where protestors are routinely arrested and, not infrequently, killed in clashes with police and/or paid thugs. This did happen in America. Most famously, we had the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, when Pinkerton guards hired by John D. Rockefeller shot into a group of striking miners killing 5 men, women and children. Awful and inexcusable, and it sparked some of Tarbell’s most explosive muckracking. The difference with China: almost immediately, the massacre led to startling reforms, and spawned the modern-day practice known as “public affairs.” Rockefeller never fully recovered his reputation from the scandal.

Globalization wasn’t the factor behind these incidents in America, of course, just good old fashioned greed and heartlessness. Globalization isn’t the sole factor behind China’s inhumanity to its workers, which goes back quite a long ways (as in, forever). But it now makes us, the consumers in the developed world, complicit to some extent in the exploitation, and it certainly has led to the mushrooming in the number of Guandong Province sweatshops and the inclination to pay the workers next to nothing (and in some cases, literally nothing at all except a bed and some rice and water). As the article states, there is constant pressure to squeeze more out of the workers. That, I believe, is due to the pressures of globalization. If you look through this blog, you won’t find many anti-globalization posts, because I know globalization can bring benefits and has done great things for China. But until globalization can become kinder and gentler, taking into account the human factor, there’s lots of room for criticism. WalMart is the great offender in this area, representing all that is most ugly about globalization.

June 5, 2006 @ 8:44 pm | Comment

Yep, he’s back, and he calls me dumb.

Another thing that never changes: he distorts what I’ve said on this thread. I offered a link to the LA Times series. I supported Skystreaker’s assertion that Walmart costs American communities money by forcing public subsidies of health care for its workers. I haven’t made a single comment about Chinese farmers or anything of the sort.

Conrad, you really are an ass. Not to mention a liar.

June 5, 2006 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

Lisa, you’re right – Conrad is definitely being an ass. I deleted the nasty ad hominem. My apologies for not doing it earlier.

June 5, 2006 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

You know, I didn’t mean to call Conrad an ass. I meant to call him a sick little twat with a bizarre fixation on me – my very own, creepy cyber-stalker. Sorry about that.

June 5, 2006 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

“I mention Walmart simply because it’s the archetypal US company that thrives on dirt-cheap foreign labor, fucking its own workers at home and guaranteeing continued slave-labor conditions overseas for the factories that make its wares.”

Richard, you made the mistake that you expect Chinese workers to have the same working conditions as the US workers. It is not going to happen for a long time but it is definitely moving in the right direction. The condtions that the Chinese workers experience right now might look like slave-labor conditions to you, but to them, it is a big step up from the near stone age conditions they had before. If as you suggested, Walmart paid the Chinese factory owners more money, the greedy factory owners will simply pocket the changes and not pass them down to their workers. There is simply little that we, Americans, can do for them. They, the Chinese, would have to do the heavy liftings themselves. I can already see signs of improvements all around China right now, although they occur far too slowly for a liberal like you, it is acceptable for a realistic person like me as long as the they are moving in the right direction.

June 6, 2006 @ 6:47 pm | Comment

Dennis, I acknowledge your points above, saying in earlier comments that these workers, many at least, see the sweatshops and deadly mines as a big step forward and as a blessing. And for them, they may well be (until they get killed in the mine or sweatshop, at least).

Please don’t put words in my mouth; where did I say WalMart should pay Chinese more money? Never said it. This article isn’t about Chinese salaries (although that’s obviously part of the bigger issue), it’s about inhumane working conditions. And you obviously don’t know this site – I praise China and its economic progress all the time. Look around.

June 6, 2006 @ 6:58 pm | Comment

Conrad, did yo’ momma use d’ strap on you too many times? Is dat why you don’ like de bitches and hoes?

You classy guy…

June 6, 2006 @ 9:51 pm | Comment

In a country as large as China, everything will happen. Anecdotes and news events are meaningless unless backed up by statistics.

“If as you suggested, Walmart paid the Chinese factory owners more money, the greedy factory owners will simply pocket the changes and not pass them down to their workers.” (From Dennis)

Or expand their operations or move the funds into property or whatever.

The real problem is not slave-labor conditions in China, but its poverty. If you enact laws that nuke these sweatshops, the capitalists are not going to pay their workers more or give more benefits, they’re going to close up shop and find something else to do. And now the laborers are in the lurch. What can they do now? As is, while the laborers are suffering horrible work conditions, they have some level of hope. With the money they make, they can put their kids into school so the kids can have jobs with better working conditions and higher pay, or alternately help build the beginnings of a consumer economy.

June 7, 2006 @ 3:25 pm | Comment

I’m sorry that I don’t have time to look up citations for this, but as I recall, parts of China are suffering labor shortages – particularly in the factory-heavy Guangdong area. Workers aren’t necessarily willing to put up with dismal conditions any more and are getting the word about good and bad working environments through text messages, etc.

There are a lot of foreign-owned factories in China that exploit workers – but there are also plenty that while not the most luxurious or well-paid environments meet certain minimum standards of treatment. I agree that drafting anti-sweatshop regulations is a tricky proposition, but it ought to be possible to form a consensus on what’s minimally acceptable.

June 7, 2006 @ 3:50 pm | Comment

“I’m sorry that I don’t have time to look up citations for this, but as I recall, parts of China are suffering labor shortages – particularly in the factory-heavy Guangdong area. Workers aren’t necessarily willing to put up with dismal conditions any more and are getting the word about good and bad working environments through text messages, etc.” -OtherLisa

Ya, I’ve heard about that as well. While the information flow is pretty bad when it comes to Chinese peasantry, they have enough data to make a semblance of an informed decision. I’d infer that from the dearth of employed and able factory workers regretting their decision to abandon their farms.

From this data, I’d like to propose: when you mistreat your workers, you are driving up their wages. Workers would normally gravitate towards better working conditions, but are willing to work in unhappy factories for extra money. The existence of sweatshops simply means that creating “happy” factories is more expensive than simply increasing employee pay to satisfy the workers.

June 7, 2006 @ 5:24 pm | Comment

testing (sorry, please delete this)

June 7, 2006 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

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