From "Sweatshop" Laborers to Landlords


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.

Reason on China here. Contributing Editor Kerry Howley used the liberation of Chinese factory workers as her lead example in our great roundtable "Are Property Rights Enough?"

[Tip o' the hat to Nancy Rommelmann.]

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  1. the issue has taken a surprising turn

    Some of us are not surprised.

  2. she prefers to see americans making shoes? why, So more americans can have crappy jobs? So Nikes will cost even more than they do, and kids won’t be able to afford them?

    1. She just hates the chinks.

      1. Nah, she hates Americans. She’s trying to encourage us to get back into boring, repetitive, low-paying work.

  3. They see their two children


    1. Rural areas of China tend to have a two child policy, rather than one which is an urban restriction.

      1. Very rural areas have a two child or more policy. Semi-rural areas have a “one child, plus you can have a second if you had the terrible misfortune of getting a daughter” policy.

  4. ..increased demand bid up prices.. of labour..

    China is now outsourcing these jobs to Vietnam, Cambodia since wages are rising too much in the chinese coastal cities…

    Thus “exploitative” “low paying” jobs are a boon… western hypocritical indignation nothwithstanding..

    1. Next thing you know, Cambodians will be paying bribes to work in a factory instead of scratching dirt under the sun.

      1. Scratching Dirt Under the Sun would be a great name for an album.

  5. The boom has a solid feel, with villagers paying cash for houses.

    There’s something anti-American about that.

    1. Well duh!
      It’s China.

    2. Clearly, the chinese government needs to make home prices rise, so they can lend money to those poor slobs to buy them.

  6. All kinds of interesting things seem to happening in China, don’t they? Before you know it, they’ll be just a cute li’l Asian version of America…

    Coochie! Coochie!

    1. The comments are simply unbelievable.

      John Taurus says:
      06/03/2010 at 6:30 pm

      “The world is awakening to the poisonous viper known as Israel. The people of the west are so brainwashed/indoctrinated, that they wouldn’t know a cobra if it bit them on the nose. The media would convince the sheeple that it was racism or something the White people did that caused the pain and swelling. These people are arranging a fight between the white non-Jews and the Muslims and non-whites. In America, it will be primarily three racial groups fighting it out amonst themselves. In Europe it will be Muslims and Christians killing off each other. All this is being set up by the Jews and they will set back and watch in amusement as we all slaughter each other. It saves a Jew dying fighting and we pay for our own destruction. All orchestrated by the Devil Jew. This monetary crisis is another orchestration that will serve as a trigger to set off the violence.”

      1. MNG’s real name is John Taurus?

        1. It’s his porn name.

          1. “You mess with The Bull, son, you get the horns!”

            1. Your disbelief at Taurus’ raging Anti-Semitic paranoia is a sign that the Great Jew is winning.

        2. He will forever be known as MSG to me, because he gives me hives.

  7. Years after activists accused Nike and other Western brands of running Third World sweatshops, the issue has taken a surprising turn.

    Only to those completely ignorant of history. Chad, Tony, your thoughts?

    1. I’m sure they’ll chime in with some well researched and citation rich opinions about the wholesale economic devastation in countries like Korea and Vietnam wrought by the exodus of American factor…err…sweatshops to China. Should be just about any moment now.

  8. J sub, nothing those guys do could properly be called “thought.”

    1. It is a friggin’ beautiful day in SE Michigan and that may be why I was, perhaps, being overgenerous

  9. Well sure, if you save your wages you can buy an apartment building. But how does that provide any information useful to an American?

    1. No kidding. How am I supposed to save when I need to shop to support the economy? It’s my patriotic duty to blow 140% of my paycheck every year, to keep the banks solvent.

  10. Woo-Hoo, China?

  11. Yup. I’m always appalled by Americans who complain about “wage slavery”, and at our relatively high minimum wage even.

    Mexican day laborers can work for below minimum wage, and still have enough money to send home to their families. Or to save up and start a landscaping business.

    Getting rich isn’t about having your wages set by the government. It’s about living below your means and saving.

    1. Getting rich isn’t about having your wages set by the government. It’s about living below your means and saving.


      People need designer shoes, brand new sports cars and trips to Las Vegas every weekend!

  12. Yeah dude some of those landlords can be a real pain right!


    1. Whoa, a little off the mark this time, my android friend.

      1. Anon bot’s first attempts at threadjacking have been a tad clumsy.

        1. After breaking character a couple of weeks ago, and revealing himself as a ?real? little boy, he has retreated back into obscurity.

  13. But I thought working for slave wages over there was a race to the bottom?

    I heard they’d somehow created a gigantic middle class in the span of only 25 years or so, but how can everything the unions tell me be wrong?

    I wonder how many of those jobs we might have kept here if not for the unions.

    1. Very few. The living conditions many of the migrant workers tolerate are below what Americans can attain on welfare.

      1. They tolerate them for a couple years and then move into better ones when they’ve gained skills and begun to earn more.

        Also, the ones living in those conditions are generally young, healthy, men who are saving to bring their families over.

        1. Sorry, I was actually talking about the Chinese migrant workers. The ones from the countryside working in the factories near the coast.

          But, you are absolutely correct in that they do improve their lot once they’ve gained skills.

          I think the main difference is that in China the workers are young, healthy, men and women who are saving to return home and start businesses.

          1. That’s pretty much the same as Mexican migrant labor in the US.
            Lots of them do plan to return to Mexico. They just need to earn enough to get their family back home going.

            Some decide to bring their families over and start a business here.

      2. The living conditions many of the migrant workers tolerate are below what Americans can attain on welfare.

        And how are the living conditions of people who work at McDonalds?

        Just for the record, I worked my way through boarding school by way of a saw mill. …if it had been unionized, I doubt the union would have let me work there. …not at my age, not at my wages.

        I imagine people said at the time that my job shouldn’t have existed, since I wasn’t making enough to live a lifestyle of some ridiculously overpaid union worker–and I guess that’s what it always comes back to for me…

        I could never understand why how much I made was anybody’s business but mine. …and I would never leave it to some union boss to price my work hours right out of the market.

        I worked a construction job when I was young with a lot of migrant workers too–I never missed any meals. Any American educated, English speaking person who can’t compete with migrant workers must be pretty damn lazy.

        1. Look, I support all this. I think the industrialization of China is resulting in a huge improvement in the quality of life of former dirt-farmers in China. I support it. Good thing since I’m actively involved in it.

          All I’m saying is that Chinese migrant workers spend months away from their homes and families living in crowded, crappy dorms. Often unheated (at least here in southern China) no A/C. The jobs are assembly-line shit jobs. They’re boring and they don’t pay well. The food at the factory cafeterias ain’t McDonald’s either. But it’s better than starving half to death on a dirt farm in Sichuan.

          It seems to me that it’s been difficult to find labor in America to do this sort of job in these conditions at low wages. Even non-union factories I’ve been associated with can’t find people at minimum wage.

        2. Well, those things do need to be sold in vast quantities if our consumption-based economy is going to stay afloat. Where is the money going to come from if the average American is paid 10 cents an hour?

          1. From what I can tell, the peasants in the country-side are making more than ten cents an hour.

            Who’s getting paid ten cents an hour?

            Where is that figure coming from?

            1. Actually, if I recall, the factory workers in Guangdong province (where many of the factories are)make a minimum wage of about $0.80/hr. They do get paid overtime also. Most get paid more and you can’t get workers to come in unless you are giving them overtime, so their earnings are higher.

              As you go west wages fall. Probably about half that in places like JiangXi and Sichuan, but I haven’t looked lately.

              1. Oh, but also be aware that things are a lot cheaper here. And the factory workers typically get room and board provided by the factory.

  14. I’m starting to wonder where it is my great-grandkids will be immigrating to in search of opportunity and freedom.

      1. …or Mars!

  15. Clearly, the Chinese are suffering from false consciousness. Who would want to become the landed bourgeousie and buy all that cheap Chinese crap anyway?

    1. A reasonable facsimile, if a little short–I give it a B.

      You got bonus points for using the phrase “cheap Chinese crap”.

  16. 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.

    Unfortunately, most of this accumulated wealth will eventually be pissed away send their grandchildren to college, where they will study ethnomusicology and the capitalist oppression of their ancestors.

    1. many pluses. Nice combination of threads.

    2. This was funny for a second. Then I realized that that’s probably exactly what will happen and it’s sad.

  17. Typing is even harder than usual, this morning.

  18. villagers paying cash for houses

    Oh, the HUMANITY!

  19. “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.

    At 0-for-2, this is the most misnamed organization since the 1-for-4 Center for Science in the Public Interest.

    1. Apparently Benjamin has never heard of comparative advantage. My other thought is this: why do national borders matter exactly?

      1. If national borders don’t matter, you would have no problem living in Mexico, Laos, or Somalia, right?

        National borders matter for obvious reasons — no government can provide law and order over too big of an area.

        1. Which implies that national borders dont matter. My county is going to provide the law and order.

          1. Ah, so county borders matter, but national ones don’t. So if your county wants to charge tariffs and limit migration between counties, that’s OK, you only have a problem with it when the nation does.

        2. Indeed, individual freedom is maximized when (a) trade and migration blocs are as large as they can be while (b) jurisdictional bloc are as small as they can be.

          1. Poppycock. Ever dealt with a local zoning board? The petty tyrants that populate local governments are no less tyrannical for being petty.

            And to tie your statement to current events, I suppose you think the people of Chicago, or the District of Columbia, would be more free if only their city governments had jurisdiction there.

            1. Are you implying that zoning boards would get more oppressive if the oppression of the state and federal governments were decreased?

              As for Chicago and DC, I dare say that if they didn’t have the rest of the country’s money to budget and spend, they would need to find some more tenable model for their governing.

              1. Zoning boards would remain just as oppressive, and there would be local panels and local commissions and such that would micromanage every other aspect of your existence. So, in effect, yes.

                And your statement about Chicago and DC is a dodge. There are plenty of wealthy jurisdictions (ahem, NYC) that are just as willing to violate individual freedoms guaranteed by the gigantic US jurisdiction.

                1. Only until they found their tax base voting with their feet and moving the short distance to another county that figures out, quite rightly, that *not* micromanaging and harassing your citizens makes them more productive.

                  1. No need to speculate, we have real world examples. Ie: Swiss Cantons. Some have veeery petty and stringent zoning regs.. others hardly any.
                    Also: tax competition.
                    IMHO it works much better than centralization.

      2. Competition between governmental units is, on the whole, positive.

  20. why do national borders matter exactly?

    It’s the polite way to express racism.

    1. so what?

  21. “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.

    Problem is…

    The pay is minuscule by Western measures.

    The sad fact is that assembling sneakers doesn’t require paying someone $20/hr. plus benefits, at least, not in the current world economy.

    1. I consider it a happy fact. It allows me to spend a smaller portion of my wealth on shoes.

    2. And, of, course, their expenses are miniscule by Western standards, too. I doubt if that apartment house cost a million dollars, for example.

      1. “”Line workers, she says, can earn several times the average $200 annual income of a farm family.

        10 times the $200 annual would be $2,000. What will that buy you? I doubt the whole figgin apartment building is more than $50,000 USD.

  22. [Global Exchange founding director Medea] Benjamin

    That right there tells me everything I need to know about Global Exchange.

    1. That she wants to feed you your children?

      1. C’mon, SF. You know that’s a patriarchal myth detailing what happens to uppitty women who try to step beyond their circumscribed roles in society: they are demonized as infant-killers. The transition of mother to infanticide evokes the deepest taboos of society and produces revulsion in the bourgeoisie, thus helping to reinforce the limited space in society for women. You read enough Feministing, you know all this.

        1. Look, I’d be happy if I could just get a bitch to have dinner on the table when I get home. Just once.

          1. Obviously, you have not explained the situation to her well enough. Pimp hand weak or what?

        2. Personally, I like the feminist interpretation of the Medea myth. She’s the only (mortal) female who has a complete story arc, appears in multiple tales, and she gets to be married to Achilles in the afterlife.

          Anyway, lots of people kill babies in the Greek mythos. Big deal …

  23. A culture of sacrifice, and deferred rewards? That’ll never work!

  24. 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.

    That’s not so much moving the goal posts as showing their true colors. They never gave a shit about Chinese workers’ welfare in the first place, it was all about protecting union jobs in the US.

  25. While the Chinese system of government is atrocious for plenty of reasons, you have to admit there are advantages to having leaders who are not manipulating the economy to give out short-term goodies to the electorate.

    1. They seem to specialize in manipulating the economy to give long-term goodies to the politically connected. Much of the economy is a house of cards construction of corruption, favoritism, and the remnants of central planning.

      1. Oh, so their economy is just like ours? Who knew!

      2. China is the next bubble.

  26. “””They’re sleeping 12 in a dorm, and it looks like a pretty crappy life,” Chang said. “But you don’t hear workers say, ‘Oh, I have no hope, I’m a slave.’ They say, ‘I want to save some money. My dream is to be Bill Gates or to own a restaurant.'”””

    Yeah, that’s the problem with America, we won’t sleep 12 in a dorm.

    1. They are sleeping 12 in a dorm by choice, because they want to save money.

      So they can buy a house and start a business.

      Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.

      Anyway, what’s so horrible about sharing sleeping quarters? I used to sleep 6 to a cabin at summer camp when I was a kid, and we didn’t have heating either. Ate in a mess hall. Cleaned our own dishes and put the leftovers in a slop bucket. Washed the outhouses ourselves.

      If this is “fun” for an 8 year old at summer camp, is it objectively horrifying for an adult to be getting paid to do it at 18?

    2. Actually, yes it is. Every frickin’ kid I’ve met for the last 30 years wants to start life on third base.

  27. Don’t believe the hype!!!

    The factory workers may make money and set up rural businesses
    but those businesses will just become evil corporashuns!!

    Then they’ll start using cheap African labour!!

    Don’t you see where its heading?

  28. Yet Mon far prefers factory work to farming.

    Every American liberal who laments the “eradication” of teh FamblyFarm by evil corporate BigAgriculture meanies should talk to this guy.

    Farming sucks. (YMMV)

  29. “Wuhu? Wuhu to you too! Where am I?”
    –W.C. Fields, The Big Broadcast of 1938

  30. Ms. Benjamin need not worry. Her grandkids will get to sew Nikes. For $.80 an hour. For the Chinese. See? Problem solved!

  31. Globalization does appear to assist developing countries through western investment. However this is a slow and cold form of assistance.

    The individual experience of these workers appears to be lost in the numbers. Whether or not back breaking labor for extreme hours in low standard conditions is really worth the small economic gains is a legitimate question and shouldn’t be scoffed as socialist drivel .

    For years I held onto my libertarian stance on so called “sweatshops” citing comparative advantage and individual effort. But when you move beyond the numbers game and appreciate the lives of such workers and the time frame in which development is supposed to occur it is hard to hide the cruelty. People spend their lives toiling in factories only to receive petty rewards and this is a victory?

    Such conditions are not comparable to anything in the western world. Just because you worked long low paid hours to get through grad school does not give you perspective on third world labor.

    I understand a skepticism of unions but acting as if business as usual is compatible with reasonable standards of ethics is ludicrous.

    Globalization is a giant black stain on all of us who fight for true liberty. Question your own propaganda.

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