Friday, June 25, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: Work Conditions & Suicides


I few months back I was speaking at Columbia University and a professor sitting in on my talk asked me, "What are the labor conditions like in China at the moment?"

It was a tough question. There are, two sides to the story - and Howard W. French, who was moderating, assisted in answering this question based on his wealth of experience in Central America, Asia and Africa. Some ideas that we both generated during that talk are below.

Working conditions in China have caught a lot of headlines the last few weeks because of a spurt of suicides at Foxconn and a workers strike which has shut down Honda for several days. So, what are China's factories really like? I'll split my answer in to two overly simplified categories, the good and bad.

A) The Good
Manufacturing work, although tough, does allow people from the countryside to move off the land and find work opportunities in cities, suburbs and industrial centers that they wouldn't otherwise have the chance to visit. It allows many to earn a living and explore and have "an adventure" in some cases. This might sound naive to some of the most skeptic readers out there; but I've been to textile factories where a lot of the male workers play basketball after work and workers travel off the factory in the evening to meet friends at other factories and go out for dinner. I have met factory workers who make a decent wage and don't complain too much about working hours and who know that the work is hard but they won't be doing this forever - as they just want to save a bit and return back to the countryside and buy a home. These are some of the more positive stories I've heard in the last few years of visiting factories across China.

B) The Negative
While the "sweat-shop" idea is truly a rarity in China, there are many other factors of obtaining employment and maintaining employment that place significant psychological stress on workers. After years of visiting factories in some of China's most industrious locations I have come across some trends and common situations. Some of these situations are looked at below:

1) The Big Move
All migrant workers have to move. By the very nature of their employment, all migrant workers have to leave their homes, break ties with family and friends and move to a distant location; often without promise of employment. Many have to borrow money in order to leave in the first place; this is the first instance of incurring debt - which may happen often.

2) Agents
Once they arrive in manufacturing areas like Dongguan or Shenzhen they end up in "flop houses" which are full of migrants looking for work, they are not nice places. Some times weeks are spent in places like this while looking for employment at "job fairs" or through "private agents". Job fairs are difficult and exploitative in nature,and ofter jobs at very low salaries because they know that often jobs are in demand. The "private agents" on the other hand often charge potential migrant workers 3-6 months of their future salary to obtain jobs at highly sought after manufacturing companies. Assuming a migrant uses an agent, they may be borrowing money to cover living experience before employment and then have to pay back their "fee's" for up to six months after their first day of work. This is another cause of indebtedness.

3) Work Conditions
The work conditions are grueling, there is no doubt about it. But, with that being said they are humane; and in many cases conditions have improved ten-fold over what working conditions were like in the 1990s. While workers have to work for long hours performing the same tasks again and again, it is understandable that the pressure on the worker can mount and that they become isolated and feeling as though their work is meaningless and that their life is worthless - but this is the minority I feel. Workers safety is still an issue at many factories and many workers do get hurt and killed on the job. This continues to happen and is also a serious issue but I don't believe it is the cause of worker unrest, suicide and strikes.

4) Living Conditions
The living conditions for many migrant workers are not great, and much of the reasons for this are out of their control. For example, migrant workers are often forced to rent accommodation from the factory they work for at inflated rates, many workers are forced to eat at factory cafeteria at inflated rates and purchase snacks and food from company shops at inflated rates; thereby eroding spending power and savings. Yet another form of indebtedness. Social lives vary greatly, many find friends and engage in happy social lives, others fall through the cracks and live in isolation, often feeling estranged; it is these people who can often end up taking their own lives or getting themselves hurt on the job.

5) The Trap
A lot of you out there must just be thinking, why not just quit the job and move back home. It is just not that easy. Many migrant workers feel trapped in their employment for many reasons, the first is often family pressure. Many migrants borrow money and leave home with promises to deliver wealth to the family - but that is more often fantasy than fact. Also remember that for a migrant worker to obtain employment often they are already in debt to various people before their first day of work; and to complicate matters, often workers have their salaries held for at least three months by factories, so they are continuously owed three months salary. This is seen as an insurance policy for the company, forcing workers to return to work after the "Chinese New Year Holiday" where many workers return home and never come back to the factory. All of these pressures build up, and it's easy to see how a young 17, 18, 19 year old migrant, who is not very well educated, could become overwhelmed by negative feelings and hopelessness.

6) The Solution
To be honest, there is no solution. The problem is not always the job, but the system around finding and maintaining employment. There are too many middle-men and too many people out their making huge profits off of China's migrant classes. Basketball courts, swimming pools, better housing, better food, increase in salaries may not help the situation much. It is the infrastructure around finding employment and holding employment are improved.

Expect more suicides and more workers strikes. Sad but true. But that's just my two cents.

Ryan Pyle

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This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle