“Outsourcing” is a painful word for most Americans. Since Richard Nixon opened relations with the People’s Republic of China, “Made in China” stamps have shown up on more and more consumer products. That trend picked up speed through the 2000s, sucking away more and more American jobs. Well-known brands like Apple and Wal-Mart seem to think Chinese labor is superior, but why?
The short answer is that Chinese labor is cheap and malleable. Many factory workers make the equivalent of $2.00 per hour, and since China is a communist dictatorship, they have no recourse against inhumane labor practices. Chinese workers may be assembling the newest electronics, but their work environment is like something out of the 19th century.
You may have read the New York Times expose last week, which detailed an explosion last May at a plant in Chengdu that builds iPads. Four were killed, 18 were injured. In its March 2011 cover story, Wired investigated the 17 suicides at a plant in Shenzhen. Management’s response was to put up nets. Both plants are owned by Foxconn, a Chinese company that contracts with Apple to assemble phones and tablets.
Such a relationship is, in the long run, just as bad for companies as it is for workers. Working through subcontractors or, as is the case in the auto industry, mandatory partnerships with Chinese companies, brings the risk of industrial espionage. There is also the risk of a massive backlash if Chinese workers ever organize.
America cannot compete with China, because that would mean sacrificing American values. Since Henry Ford opened his first plant, American businesses have believed in giving their employees a wage they can live on and humane working conditions, in exchange for their labor.
This relationship has made the United States an industrial power since the turn of the 20th century. The rise of cheap Chinese labor is not just a threat to the American economy, it is a challenge to American values. We shouldn’t shrug our shoulders and mutter “that’s business,” we should fight to keep jobs in the U.S. and, perhaps, refrain from that next iPad purchase.