Shenzhen Sweatshops: The Ultimate Goal of Corporatism

“When you describe the ideal environment for corporate profit, it looks like the opposite of what humans need to thrive.” I wrote this in August 2010 to introduce a discussion we are now all familiar with—union busting and reducing worker rights—but also to call attention to these actions as part of a larger plan by corporatists to transform our world into their world.

For example, unfettered corporations would like to:

  • Drive down the worldwide cost of human capital. Indentured servitude would be nice.
  • Drive down the value of human capital. Zero value means the elimination of wrongful death as a cause of action. It also means the elimination of most medical care and all but the most basic education for most people.
  • Ban unions and anyone else who does not support corporate objectives.
  • Make all property private property with no public input on how it is used (up).
  • Turn everything possible into a profit center:
  • Pay wages in company scrip so that workers are forced to spend with the company.
  • Overcharge for everything so that workers are forced to borrow from the company to survive.
  • Force children to inherit a parent’s debt at death.
  • Charge for things like fresh water if the company has contaminated the local supply
  • Reduce all expenses possible
  • No corporate taxes, employee benefits, safety precautions, vacations, leisure time
  • Longer work hours (fewer workers reduces training cost)

Think it could never happen? Google: Company Town.

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Except now you don’t have to research company towns of the past. There is Shenzhen, a factory city in China. This is the place where most of our electronics are made. Jon Stewart did a Daily Show segment on the Foxconn factory last month, and This American Life devoted an entire recent show to it.

Shenzhen was once an extremely poor and sparsely populated town in China—literally so poor that sweatshops were a step up. Three decades ago, China gave the area to corporations with the mandate to make China a modern world economy. Then the Chinese leadership turned its back on what happened there. Corporations transformed our world into their world. Now it is a city of 14 million working in factories.

To say these factories are sweatshops doesn’t do them justice. They hit most of the above bullet points and then some, They take corporate town to a place I don’t think it had been before.

  • Drive down the worldwide cost of human capital. Indentured servitude would be nice.
    • At Foxconn everything is handmade because people are cheaper than machines. The only machinery is the assembly line conveyor belt.
    • Companies pay token wages.
  • Drive down the value of human capital. Zero value means the elimination of wrongful death as a cause of action. It also means the elimination of most medical care and all but the most basic education for most people.
    • 430,000 Foxconn workers sleep in concrete barracks on stacked beds crammed into tiny rooms.
    • Foxconn employees are not allowed to speak, not on duty and not in bed.
    • Workers handle toxic chemicals that render them unfit to work while they are still relatively young
    • Injured workers are not treated.  “Broken” people are thrown away.
    • Slower workers are fired in favor of younger, faster workers, including children (shoutout to Newt)
    • Complainers are put on a list of people that no factory will hire
    • A factory manager joked that running a factory was like managing animals in a zoo.
  • Ban unions and anyone else who does not support corporate objectives.
    • Talking about unions can get you fired, beaten, and/or killed. Amazingly, there are still people trying to start unions in China.
  • Make all property private property with no public input on how it is used (up).
    • Factories release toxic waste into the environment daily, raising rates of cancer, birth defects, and other problems.
  • Reduce all expenses possible
    • Foxconn has a canopy of nets around its factory to catch people who attempt suicide by jumping off the tall building. This is cheaper than dealing with successful suicides.
  • No employee benefits, safety precautions, vacations, leisure time
    • Check
  • Longer work hours (fewer workers reduces training cost)
    • While this information was being gathered, someone died after working a 34-hour shift, and it wasn’t the first time.

Most of this information comes from Mike Daisey, an experience monologist who was inspired to visit Shenzhen after seeing photos that had been taken at the factory to test an iPhone and were never erased. He passed himself off as a corporate buyer, toured the factories, and even met secretly with union organizers. Then he came home, turned the story of his experience into a one-man theater performance and went on tour.

In September 2010.

Just a month after I wrote the article above.

Also in 2010, the Report on Women and Children’s Health Development reported that birth defects in China had almost doubled from 8.77 per thousand to 15 per thousand.

Why is this only getting national coverage now? Why had we not heard about this before?

But beyond that, what are we doing about it now? If the thought of people penned like animals at night and forbidden to speak doesn’t move you, consider this self-serving thought: as long as cities like Shenzhen are allowed to exist, corporations will take their jobs there. As long as a government somewhere is willing to coldly sacrifice its people for material gain, company towns—or in this case company compounds—will keep popping up. As long as there are people desperate enough to work for token wages, that is all companies will offer.  So this is a problem for all of us.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over the next ten years, the job market will evolve this way: highly skilled jobs like doctors and engineers will grow.  Unskilled service jobs like maids and waiters will grow more. Midlevel jobs like skilled manufacturing and office support will disappear. The labor market is expected to follow the money, which is to say that the way wealth distribution is now is how the job market is expected to be in ten years.  At the top will be a few people who will never need to work. Below that will be a few more people in cushy jobs whose families paid their way through college. Below that will be a large number of people who went to college and have good jobs but little disposable income because of loan payments. Below that will be the mass of people who never went to college, qualify only for low-paying service jobs, and will never have enough money for everything they need.

A government willing to sacrifice people for material gain.  People desperate for work. It isn’t just China.  Look at what state governors in Wisconsin, Florida, and especially Michigan have done or tried to do to push people into poverty and lock down a permanently impoverished class: raising taxes on the poor, defunding higher education to limit access, defunding basic education to further limit access, banning sex education and family planning to create younger, poorer families, restricting access to health care (medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy), and on it goes. The cutting itself hastens the downward economic spiral.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was caught making a sweetheart deal to give public property to corporations. Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s emergency manager delivered Benton Harbor’s Jean Klock Park to a corporation for a golf course over the objection of the town citizens who own the park. These transfers were not for the purpose of creating a company town, but do you see my point? How long until one of those emergency managers decides that the best way to “revitalize” a town is to turn it over to a corporation or three?

Because Shenzhen was definitely revitalized. A small and poor town exploded into a city of 14 million with jobs, not all of them in the factories. Some of these jobs support a growing middle class. Google Shenzhen and you will see some lovely videos of a large, exciting Chinese city.

In our country, we have always had an underclass, and we have sacrificed people to the underclass without wanting to know too many details. Some demonize the underclass as a way to distance themselves, similar to the way the Shenzhen factory manager joked about running a zoo. Have you ever thought about the working conditions of our own underclass now? Would you consider our underclass lucky to have stable factory jobs even if the conditions were harsh? Unemployment already hits unskilled workers hardest. What if Republicans succeed in pushing up unemployment to 18%? Would people clamor for even a Draconian fix?

In past articles, I have said “this is where we are going, this is where corporatists and their Republican puppets want to take us” as an abstract, an imagined place based on extrapolating history and politics. No more.

The place they are taking us has a name: Shenzhen.

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