Message from China: Slavery Has ManyFaces

The way I learned it, after slavery was abolished in Jamaica, most of the slaves ran off into the woods exulting in their new-found freedom but soon returned to work for their former masters for very low wages.

It is a form of neo-slavery that persisted throughout my boyhood. With no way of making a decent living, descendants of the slaves were forced to earn a few shillings a week as laborers, maids, cooks, nannies and yard boys.

I believe conditions in Jamaica are better today, but – from what I hear – the great majority of the population still live in poverty. Today, they are ground down by international financial conditions they cannot control – the tariff-free importation of food products, which has stifled domestic agriculture and the dairy industry, for example.

You might even argue that the forced imposition of international rules is a kind of economic slavery, as it deprives the Jamaican producers of any freedom of choice in the matter.

But that would be a matter for debate.

What’s indisputable is that in many Chinese factories, the workers are virtually enslaved. With a billion and a half people competing for available employment, the factory owners are in a position to impose the most draconian conditions.

In his recent soul-baring tape, Mitt Romney could be heard apparently lauding the situation in one factory he visited. He reported that the workers were housed in dormitories, 10 girls to a room with only one bathroom to share. And he said the factory owners had been obliged to build a fence around the compound – not to keep workers in but to keep would-be workers out.

It’s no secret that many factories in China impose horribly abusive conditions on their workers.  Some even exploit child labor.

And, as I’m sure you know, many of the Chinese factories produce goods for the American market. In the past three or four decades, America has lost millions of manufacturing jobs to China as global corporations shifted their production facilities to maximize their profits.

Over the weekend,  I watched a documentary on Current TV describing unbelievably abusive working conditions in places like China and Bangladesh, The factories in the documentary produce goods for Walmart.

I would imagine the long hours and deplorable conditions prevalent in Chinese factories contributed to today’s riot at the company that makes Apple’s iPhones.

According to the Associated Press, a Foxconn Technology Group factory in the northern city of Taiyuan suspended production after a dormitory brawl injured 40 employees. The Foxconn factory’s 79,000 workers make iPhones and iPads for Apple Inc., and the company also assembles products for Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. AP says Foxconn is one of China’s biggest employers, with some 1.2 million workers.

With the Chinese workers who make their products forced to accept sweatshop wages and conditions, Apple share prices are breaking records on the New York Stock Exchange (around $700 a share!).

It seems paradoxical to me that the United States would send its young men and women to die for freedom in places like Iraq, while tacitly approving slave-like conditions in China. Yet, by permitting the importation of goods produced under such inhumane conditions, in most cases without imposing a tariff, that’s just what America is doing.

And I suspect that global corporations are hoping to change America’s political and economic systems with the eventual goal of creating a slave-like underclass similar to China’s.  Their argument is that in order to compete in a worldwide jobs market, American workers must be prepared to accept conditions similar to those in other countries.

While this might seem unthinkable, the acceptance of slave-like conditions in Chinese factories that supply the American market looks to me like a vital first step.

Click here for factory riot story.