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.

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.

12 Replies to “Shenzhen Sweatshops: The Ultimate Goal of Corporatism”

  1. Ultimately, if “they” succeed in implementing this kind of a sciety, “they” are going to decide too large an underclass is dangerous. What then? Outright slaughter could be accomplished only at the cost of a civil war, and engineering a famine is as dangerous (though I have my suspicions). The most viable alternatives for “population levelling” seem to be either a pestilence, or the release of bioactive chemicals into the environment of the proletariat that would render many of them sterile, preferably as martins whose lack of sexual urges would render them docile. You see, I’m rather a dystopic thinker…but the harbingers of any of these trends are already in evidence.

  2. Yeah. It floors me when some right wing stooge accuses me of being anti- capitalism or a socialist because I don’t think that you can privatize or de-regulate EVERYTHING under the sun. My usual response is “Uh,I’m a business owner you *&%$.”

    A wealthy friend of mine ( he USED to be a republican )invested some of his money into eco-friendly product development. He would talk to a lot of his corporate buddies that had companies that would generate a potentially harmful waste by product to the environment, animal life, and of course human life. He said that the reactions that he received were a real eye opener. He realized that unless some corporatists have a legislative gun pointed at their heads they will not stop their dangerous,unsafe,and abusive practices, especially if it affects their bottom line. Let’s face it some of these guys are sociopaths.

  3. They’re very common. The things I saw in manufacturing facilities would sometimes make my hair stand on end… and they did everything they could to avoid notice by regulators and tried to get away with anything they could think of. They would deliberately put their employees lives at risk for a few dollars profit. They obviously didn’t care about their employees’ health and well-being, and in many cases the employees sensed it and retaliated by being stupid and wasteful.

    The biggest gripe I heard (80s and 90s) was “quotas”. They didn’t want the government “interfering” with their hiring practices. The problem was, it was all a smoke screen and their real reason was pure bigotry. They didn’t want to hire minorities. (And when they found out in the mid 90s that I am one of those hated minorities – American Indian, I lost just over 60% of my customers in a single month. Before that, they figured me for just another slightly-dark-complexioned (I tan easy) “good ole white boy” and didn’t hide their views (very embarrassing and often scary to listen to). I also heard a lot of griping about “government controlling my business” in relation to OSHA. It was funny – the shops that were constantly jury-rigging their machinery to keep it going a bit longer were the ones who complained about OSHA the most. Some of those jury-rigs were really scary, like cut someone’s head off scary.

  4. its not just crapple stuff. its all electronic stuff, textiles, chemicals, mining, and more that red china uses neo slave labor. and yes if the plutocracy of the right had their way, the same thing. if you want to see how it was here in the USA, before unions, check out this site with great archival photos…

  5. This is nothing new. Taft Hartley should be repealed along with national strike laws on the books. Wouldn’t it have been nice to take the nation out on strike when Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers or in support of the 29 dead minors murdered because safety systems were not in place.

  6. in my opinion this is exactly were Dr. Ron Paul wants us to go. He has voted against every single worker safety and improvement bill that he could find. He is against anything that protects workers and his followers call that liberty.

    This is what life was like before we had unions. This is what it will be like again If the continued destruction of the middle class isnt stopped.
    NO Names – just a number
    NO Seniority
    NO Job Security
    NO Representation
    NO Grievance procedure
    NO Promotional Opportunities
    NO Job classifications
    NO Health & Safe program
    NO Protective equipment
    NO Preference of shift
    NO Relief periods
    NO Work standards
    NO Uniform pay scale
    NO Guaranteed wage increases
    NO Cost-of-living raises
    NO Overtime pay after eight hours
    NO Time and a half on Saturday
    NO Double time on Sunday
    NO Triple time for holidays
    NO Shift premiums
    NO Call-in pay
    NO Rotation of premium time
    NO Paid holidays
    NO Paid Vacations
    NO Paid absence allowance
    NO Moving allowance
    NO Bereavement pay
    NO Jury Duty pay
    NO Military duty pay
    NO Paid-up life insurance
    NO Sickness & Accident benefits
    NO Medical protection
    NO Layoff disability benefits
    NO Guaranteed income stream
    NO S.U.B.
    NO Short work week benefits
    NO Severance pay
    NO Pensions
    NO Prescription drugs
    NO Tuition refund.

  7. They’re working on it NOW in Florida. I wrote in the blog entry “Push Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box in 2012” ( ) about what they’re trying to do to my school. The thing to realize is that situation is an attack on Academic Freedom AND an attack on unions at the same time. Both are under fire.

    They’re going to kick all of the faculty, staff, and students out of USF Polytechnic and force our main campus (USF Tampa) to absorb them with no funding for salaries or for the extra students. (It’s a punitive measure partially because our university president resisted them and dumped one of Alexander’s cronies.)

    All of the new hires are going to not be allowed to get tenure – there goes the protection of academic freedom. The new hires (faculty and staff) will only be allowed to have year-to-year contracts. That means that the politicians will always have a club over their heads: “Teach what we tell you to teach and don’t resist our plans, or you’re fired!”

    IT gets more interesting that while they’re insisting that the State doesn’t have the funds to support higher education (or that they have to cut medicaid and any other programs for the poor in order to free up money to support higher education), at the same time a bill is working it’s way through the legislature that gives *corporations ADDITIONAL TAX BREAKS*. An interesting thing happened to that bill.

    The democrats, in an attempt to soften it and make it more palatable, put provisions in the bill that corporations would get this break if they give insurance to “employee health insurance for same-sex partners, proving they don’t discriminate against veterans and using a federal database to screen out illegal immigrants when hiring” with new riders.

    Every one of those new riders put in by the Republicans give tax breaks to corporations who *refuse to hire anyone belonging to a union*!

    I would add that there are dominionist connections to all of this as well. The person our university president dumped stated that they would never teach anthropology at USF Polytechnic (the same or next day, the social science teaching positions I’d applied for at that school were canceled). I’ve heard from people that a major part of the reason for that was that we taught critical thinking instead of just problem-solving and because the social sciences are based on evolution. There is a great deal of hostility towards higher education in this dominionist-dominated area anyway, and they’ve long wanted a school where they could send their kids to get enough education for the “good jobs” while not exposing them to anything that would challenge their brainwashing/programming. That is the Polytechnic that’s being created if we don’t stop them – a glorified tech school where you learn just (and only) enough to get and keep the “good jobs”.

    Again – I ask that people call, write, or somehow contact the state representatives, especially if you live in Florida and state your opposition. Don’t just contact the ones in your area… if you have the time, contact those outside as well. We need to get this attack on my school stopped, and the overall cuts to higher education as well.

  8. Trying again… brain still isn’t running this morning. I forgot to mention that the quotes were from the news article regarding the changes to the bill that I linked to.

  9. We need dystopian thinkers to offset those who refuse to believe what’s in front of them. I’m not sure why you say they would consider our underclass too large, especially as birth rates are relatively low and the baby boomer bulge will disappear soon enough. Attrition is a powerful winnowing force. How many people die each day for lack of health care alone? And there’s always reinstating the draft. I’m definitely with you on dosing the population, but why add a chemical cocktail when people will dose themselves voluntarily with doughnuts and soda?

  10. Worldwide, the underclass is becoming swollen by birthrates, and locally, by formerly middle-class people being precipitated into it. The latter are especially dangerous, because they don’t regard themselves as predestined for, or deserving of, their fate. Just take a look at Rick Santorum’s rants about the guillotine and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

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