China and America: Two sides of the same coin?


A LOT has been said about Chinese labour practices not just in that country, but by its nationals across the globe and especially in Africa where America and China are covertly fighting to control the resource rich continent.
When China opened itself to the world some 20 years ago, its labour costs were so low that American companies could not resist moving production there. According, to Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor, “Even if they (American companies) had to ship all their components overseas and then ship everything back, the savings were huge.”
Gradually the ordinary American began to feel the pinch and China became the enemy being accused of “pathetic and unfair labour practices”.
Politicians, of course, jumped on to this bandwagon and American executives feigned shock over poor conditions workers who produced their goods were subjected to by Chinese contractors.
And so began the Buy American campaign and on a larger scale the demonisation of the Chinese.
Over the years there have been calls for transparency in Chinese factories, and a drive for ‘transparent manufacturing’ as a bid to expose the Chinese as subjecting workers to ‘abysmal working conditions’ in the words of Rajeev Batra, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Coming to Africa, the propaganda has been that the Chinese run tight ships and those who are investing and engaging in businesses on the continent are exporting China’s labour practices to Africa.
There is a deliberate move to depict the Chinese as having a tradition of abusing workers, and this is compared to the whitewashed image of Western corporations.
Unethical labour practices have always been a common practice in America, but not much attention is paid to them.
In Los Angeles, labour officials discovered a slave-sweatshop where 80 Thai immigrants were forced to sew brand-name clothes in a compound behind razor wire and armed guards.
The workers earned US$2 per hour for making clothes that were later sold at major stores.
Studies found that 67 percent of Los Angeles garment factories and 63 percent of New York garment factories violated minimum wage and overtime laws.
The same studies revealed that 98 percent of L.A. garment factories violated workplace health and safety standards by operating under conditions such as blocked fire exits, unsanitary bathrooms, and poor ventilation.
Over 50 percent of these shops can be considered ‘sweatshops’.
Fashion darling Alexander Wang was served in March 2012 with a US$50 million lawsuit from a man who used to sew his clothes.
Wenyu Lu describes having worked 25 hours continuously without break or overtime pay in an unventilated, windowless part of Wang’s New York City design firm, and claims he was ultimately fired after voicing his complaints to management and filing for worker’s compensation.
He sued, and dozens of his fellow employees signed on. 
The headlines that later rocked the fashion world put a name to Lu’s allegation: Wang ran a ‘sweatshop’ in the United States of America.
Charles Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights made Kathie Lee Gifford cry on national television, when he revealed that her Wal-Mart-sold clothing line was produced by Honduran children working 20-hour shifts.
“It was ridiculous. In fact it was one of the worst factories we’ve seen,” said Kernaghan.
“There was child labour, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages — and wages were very, very low.
“Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.”
The girls as young as 13 years worked from 7:30am to 9 pm, Monday through Friday, and because of forced overtime to meet rush orders, the children were not permitted to attend night school, where from 6 pm to 10 pm they could have studied to complete their grammar school education.
Wal-Mart seems to have a penchant for contracting the worst of contractors to produce its products.
Classic, the largest factory in Jordan was exposed in 2011.
Its management hired young women from Asia, stripped them of their passports, forced them to work gruelling hours for awful pay under a managerial regime that subjected them to routine rape.
One woman hung herself in the factory’s bathroom with her own scarf after allegedly being raped at the hands of a manager.
After the exposé, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Lands’ End stopped doing business with Classic (they represented eight percent of its export trade), but the factory’s chief customer, Wal-Mart, was unfazed.
According to documents recently smuggled out of the factory, 75 percent of Classic-made apparel is still going to Wal-Mart and Hanes.
When American Apparel first burst onto the scene, it heavily emphasised that its products are made in a Los Angeles factory by relatively well-paid workers, although the CEO later played down that aspect of the company.
But the company is staunchly anti-union and its image has been tarnished by its creepily sexualised retail hiring practices and multiple charges of sexual harassment levelled against the CEO.
Many corporations use contract manufacturing firms to produce their goods.
By separating themselves from the production of their goods, they can claim that they are not aware, and consequently not responsible, for the conditions under which they are made.
The reality, however, is that these companies actually dictate the labour standards of their suppliers.
Because corporations demand extremely low prices for merchandise, the manufacturers, with profit in forefront of their minds, cut the wages of their employees and compromise their safety.
Foreign governments accommodate corporations, as well, by setting the minimum wage well below what is needed to meet basic needs, in order to boost national economic gain.
American companies get away with these types of business practices because the U.S. Labour Department requires only internal monitoring.
As a result, there is no way to determine whether or not companies are honest about the conditions that they find.
Unfortunately, even if violations of human rights are discovered, corporations are only held to negligible fines.
That is, the fines they must pay if and when they are caught are minimal compared to the money they save by outsourcing the manufacturing of their goods.


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