Friday, November 25, 2011

the China price and me

"Everyone wants as much as possible for as little money as possible," he said.

This is the lament of a Chinese factory manager, a supplier of products for Timberland, in Alexandra Harney's The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage. I'll come back to his--Zhang Yisheng's--words in a moment. First, the book.

The China Price, as the title indicates, looks at the cost of our cheap outsourced Chinese manufacturing: the human cost, the environmental cost. Harney describes, mostly through accounts of individual factory workers in one Chinese province, the effects of U.S. multinationals' 'race to zero', the quest for ever-cheaper production of their goods. She gives you glimpses of the impact of poor working conditions on workers' health, the feebleness of western brands' attempts at enforcing compliance with codes of conduct for working conditions and salaries, and a system that leaves no room for extra spending on things like air conditioning or maternity benefits for workers.

One of the problems she describes is particularly telling. Falsification of factory records is rampant in this business, as factories struggle to maintain at least the semblance of compliance with western brands' codes of conduct.

At the heart of the falsification problem is a lack of law enforcement by Chinese officials. Although China's laws on wages and hours are good, they are poorly enforced, particularly in regions that want to attract and retain foreign investment... But the companies themselves, and to a certain extent their shareholders and customers, are also partly to blame. The expectation of simultaneous price declines and improvement in working conditions has put undue pressure on Chinese suppliers and compelled them to cheat.

Here's how that last sentence works out in practice: western brands are tough bargainers, and they constantly shift orders to different Chinese factories, going where the prices are lowest at the moment. Yet, compliance with their demands concerning workers' pay and hours and working conditions will cost the factories extra money, thus increasing the overhead for production at the factory. When it costs more to produce there, the brand takes their business elsewhere. In effect, the brand's insistence on cheap products disallows any improvement of workers' rights in a given factory.

As Zhang said, "everyone wants as much as possible for as little money as possible." It seems to me that this--more than any government corruption, unfamiliarity with talk of human rights, hypocrisy in western executives, or any other factor you could name--this is the real force driving the China price. This is a price that children pay who are working in factories, Chinese workers pay when they aren't given any compensation for overtime hours, domestic workers pay when their jobs are outsourced, and the planet pays, as China is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, pollutants that have literally crossed the Pacific and been measured on the west coast of the U.S.

It's easy enough for Christians to condemn greed. "Everyone wants as much as possible" is an evil, and we can name it without too much trouble. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal" (Matt 6:19).

But what about the other part? "For as little money as possible." Frugality probably does not strike you as much of a vice. Isn't that just good stewardship, effective use of our resources? Like John Wesley said, we are to make all we can and save all we can, so that we can give all we can. Right?
Maybe this is not always true. Maybe this is not always the most faithful route. Maybe at times following Jesus means paying a higher price so that others can pay a lower one. Today is Black Friday, a day all about savings, as retailers slash prices on everything to meet the American consumer's voracious demands. As the Christmas shopping season kicks off, perhaps this is the perfect time to start thinking about the effects of our spending, beyond the nearest effects on our own bank accounts. Perhaps this is the best time to start asking questions and investigating the ramifications of our savings for our neighbors and God's creation.


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

For a while there I was checking all the labels of products and trying to only buy "made in the USA" stuff. Not only for reasons of patriotism, but really because I didn't want to underwrite slave-labor with my purchasing. Sadly I have gotten lazy about that. Most of what we buy these days is just food anyways, which tends to come form USA or Mexico...

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

One does have to wonder if the Chinese population will stand for these conditions indefinitely. History suggests not.

Nance said...

That's a phenomenon that Harney addresses in her book--she indicated that the second generation of Chinese migrant workers (migrants from the rural provinces into the urban centers for work) that is beginning to really fill out the Chinese labor force is *much* less compliant with the factory system as we tend to think of it. These young workers are more familiar with their rights and more inclined to take legal action against factories than were their parents, and--as most of them come from single-child homes on account of mandatory family planning and have thus been the center of attention and care their whole lives--many of them are less likely to simply endure poor working conditions, again unlike the older generation. She actually sees the Western brands' 'race to zero' taking them away from China more and more in the coming decades; not that this would solve the problems, only relocate them.

Stephen Crawford said...

I think the end of your write up was dead on. Someone else takes on the cost of what we're saving, which is very much not what Jesus does, who takes the cost on himself so others don't have to. Responsible purchasing is very Christ-like. This applies to food purchase, too. Unfortunately, I have not done anything to move in that direction.

Nance said...

Stephen - what do you think a move in that direction might look like?