Last June, a story in the New York Times revealed just what type of working conditions are creating piles of inexpensive toys, decorations, electronics and other random household products made by the Chinese and sold throughout the world. There is seemingly an unending worldwide demand for cheap plastic trinkets, and the American economy has become a dumping ground for products made by slaves in other parts of the world.
Halloween and the holiday season are just around the corner, and this means big bucks for retailers, just the type of shot-in-the-arm our economy needs, so they say. Shoppers are stocking up on Halloween decorations to place in their front yards, porches and homes, just as an Oregon woman, Julie Keith, did in late 2011 when she purchased a styrofoam headstones Halloween decoration and discovered a ‘message-in-a-bottle’ from a desperate Chinese worker.
We often don’t think about how it is possible to make products in such a way that we pay only $29.99 – or $9.99 or $1.99 – and the low-cost of imported goods seems even more unrealistic considering the products are shipped all the way from the other side of the planet. Thanks to planned obsolescence and a consumer culture, we most often throw the items away when they break or even just look worn – we can replace them easily next year since there are isles of these items in each department and grocery store for months prior to the holiday season. But the reality of where the styrofoam headstones came from was clearly revealed to Julie Keith when she opened the packaging many months after making her purchase and found a hidden letter written by an inmate of the Chinese labor camp where the product was made. The letter was a plea for help, giving just a small glimpse of the verbal and physical abuse – some would venture to even say torture – that takes place in these camps.
In interviews with more than a dozen people who were imprisoned at Masanjia and other camps around the country, they described a catalog of horrific abuse, including frequent beatings, days of sleep deprivation and prisoners chained up in painful positions for weeks on end. (Source: New York Times)
Chinese labor camps were established by the People’s Republic of China under the rule of Chairman Mai Zedong as part of its Re-education Through Labor system of punishment. These camps are filled with “inmates” – called students by the government – who are detained without trial for “crimes” including offenses such as: criticizing the government through petitions or journalism; religious offenses such as following Christianity or the Falun Gong spiritual movement; and criminal offenses such as petty theft and hooliganism. Even without the physical abuse, some would consider the 15-hour work days of the inmates to constitute cruel treatment, especially since they work every single day and only receive 10 yuan per month – an equivalent to about $1.61.
Videos of the Chinese labor camps have been popping up on the internet over the last several years, as inmates and their families continue, in desperation, to petition human rights organizations and the world for more humane treatment of the people sentenced to labor camps, often without a single day in court. Below is a report that shows some of this footage:
Although the Chinese government has claimed they will try to reform the Re-education Through Labor system, on the demand side it is up to us, the purchasers, to consider how products are produced when we make our purchase decisions. Next time you’re looking through the dollar bins at Target trying to decide how many plastic pumpkins and ghosts to get, or when you’re dazzled by the holiday décor of your neighbor’s awesome front yard display and start to question the inferiority of your own front yard, realize that it is quite possible that some of these products are made by people forced to work in slave labor conditions. And many of these laborers have been incarcerated just for having what the Chinese government considers to be improper political or spiritual beliefs.
Even though it is illegal in the US to import products made by forced labor, the example of the tombstone Halloween decoration clearly shows that the supposed checks and balances in place to monitor such a law are loose and inconsistent, and certainly available to corruption.
For argument’s sake, you could justify to yourself that Julie Keith’s tombstone was part of a small shipment of Halloween décor that snuck through US customs unnoticed; since it is illegal to import such products, it is surely a rare occurrence (…and biotech companies just want to end world hunger, and politicians are never influenced by money and power…). You could argue that you only buy from brand name companies that tout fair working conditions and pay, and ones that have outlined a publicized standard for their global workforce, such as Mattel’s ‘Global Manufacturing Principles’. The reality is that working conditions in many of the factories in China, as well as in other countries that promote inexpensive manual labor, are not what one would consider fair or just.
Late last year, a report filed by the China Labor Watch organization (CLW) out of New York revealed that Mattel’s directly-controlled supplier factories are not-only treating their employees unfairly but are abusive to them as well. Here’s an excerpt from their press release on the matter:
CLW’s investigation revealed at least 15 sets of violations in four factories together employing about 10,000 workers: illegal overtime pay, excessive overtime, forced labor, myriad safety concerns, a lack of safety training, a lack of physical exams, inability to resign from work, blank labor contracts, unpaid work, a lack of social insurance, use of dispatch workers, a lack of a living wage, poor living conditions, unreasonable rules, and a lack of effective grievance channels. (Source: http://chinalaborwatch.org/news/new-446.html)
The examples of unacceptable manufacturing practices and abusive treatment of workers throughout the world, such as the scandals at Apple’s Foxconn, are numerous and easily found. Yet, Chinese workers still migrate to factories largely by choice since there are few other options for employment, leaving their families to live at the factory in the hope of saving enough to improve their living standard, even if just by a little.
Can we take it onto ourselves, the global customers, to influence large companies to adhere to better manufacturing practices, human rights and even environmental consideration? Below is a TED Talk by journalist and author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China Leslie T. Chang, who gives more insight into China’s migrant worker’s mindset.
Perhaps the migrant Chinese worker truly doesn’t care if you do buy another plastic doll this Christmas. Perhaps their working conditions won’t change at all if you decide not to. But realize that you have also become a faceless part of this soulless capitalist equation – you are the consumer – no longer referred to as a citizen by newscasters – sometimes as mindless and as easily-influenced as the advertisers want you to be.
The decisions we make here in our frenzied journeys to malls and strip-malls impact people all over the world, the environment, our local communities and our children. Perhaps while swimming in the endless sea of disposable slave-made products this holiday season, as you start in on another holiday shopping season, you could first take pause and reflect on the nature of freedom and how our choices affect the freedom of other people.
Read more articles by Anna Hunt.
About the Author
Anna Hunt is writer, yoga instructor, mother of three, and lover of healthy food. She’s the founder of Awareness Junkie, an online community paving the way for better health and personal transformation. She’s also the co-editor at Waking Times, where she writes about optimal health and wellness. Anna spent 6 years in Costa Rica as a teacher of Hatha and therapeutic yoga. She now teaches at Asheville Yoga Center and is pursuing her Yoga Therapy certification. During her free time, you’ll find her on the mat or in the kitchen, creating new kid-friendly superfood recipes.
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