Great piece in the Portland Oregnonian about how factory workers in China, far from being slaves, are now earning enough to buy real estate and send their kids to colleges so that they won't have to work in factories. Here's the beginning:
WUHU, China—Years after activists accused Nike and other Western brands of running Third World sweatshops, the issue has taken a surprising turn. […]
It turns out that factory workers […] get the last laugh. Villagers who "went out," as Chinese say, for what critics described as dead-end manufacturing jobs are sending money back and returning with savings, building houses and starting businesses.
Workers who stitched shoes for Nike Inc. and apparel for Columbia Sportswear Co., […] are fueling a wave of prosperity in rural China. The boom has a solid feel, with villagers paying cash for houses. […]
In the end, market forces and ambition, not activism or corporate initiatives, pushed up wages and improved working conditions.
Illustrative little snippet here:
The pay is minuscule by Western measures. But Mon Xijian, a 31-year-old who has worked at Ever Rich [Knitting Garment Co.] since 1996, has saved enough with his wife, who also works there, to buy a six-unit apartment building back home.
The couple don't recommend the lifestyle. They see their two children—who live at home with Mon's in-laws 1,200 miles away—every year or two. Yet Mon far prefers factory work to farming. He's saving to send his son and daughter to college so they can escape both.
And cue up some sweet goalpost-moving by U.S. activists:
"Workers have options," [Global Exchange founding director Medea] Benjamin said. But she would prefer to see U.S. workers making Nikes for the American market.
[Tip o' the hat to Nancy Rommelmann.]