Made in China – The High Cost Behind the Low Price Tag

Admit it or not, we take many things for granted.

About 90 percent of the clothes we wear everyday are made in China. Not to mention the other things we purchase on daily basis – tools, toys, furniture, electronics, and home appliances. Behind the glamorous ads, sexy displays, and shiny products in the shopping centers around us, there are millions of Chinese workers, who make the goods that we consume every day, living in a world that most of us could hardly imagine and probably would not cherish. Yet, few of us would ever know, or even care about, their life and their pain.

Among them, the biggest group is migrant workers.

Every year, hundreds of millions of migrant workers from China’s impoverished regions search for work in the more prosperous coastal regions, such as Shanghai and Canton. According to the Chinese government statistics, the current number of migrant workers in China is estimated at 150 million, approximately 11% of the population. They are at the absolute bottom of the society. Poorly educated, inadequately trained and overworked, the workers never had enough protection when they find work from unscrupulous employers who flout work safety rules and withhold salaries. According to a most recent study, only 31 percent of polled workers regularly received their full salary on time, while nearly two-thirds lacked disability insurance.

In addition to work-place abuses, migrant workers are regularly stigmatized by city dwellers who blame them for everything from crowded buses to street crime. Yet, they are the most hardworking group who shed sweat and blood in exchange for the minimum wage (on average they make less than $200 per month), and who built the foundation of China’s modern infrastructure and exporting business. Not to exaggerate, they are the pedestal of today’s global image of China as an emerging superpower or a proud dragon on fire. There’s a recent documentary movie “Last Train Home”, directed by a Canadian Chinese named Lixin Fan, showing the world for the first time in history the real life of a Chinese migrant worker family. Yet, what you’d see in the movie is only a fraction of what’s happening to the migrant workers in China.

Spring Festival is the most important festival to Chinese families. Regardless distance, family members manage to travel home and celebrate it together. To many migrant workers who have to work 12 hours or more every single day, the two weeks family gathering is the only vacation they have in the whole year. Desperate to see their parents, wives/husbands and children, they have to join an unimaginable crowd struggling to catch the train home, before the lunar New Year bell chimes. And, when the vacation ends, they have to fight again to catch the train back to work, before they lose their low-pay jobs. [Note: Similar to many other developing countries, riding a train is the cheapest way to travel in China]. If you have got a chance to witness the around-Spring-Festival rush hours at railway stations in China’s major cities, you probably would agree with me the rush hour here in North America is nothing.

In the wake of thousands of heartbreaking accidents, inhuman abuses, and years of appeals from families of migrant workers, the Chinese government finally passed a labor law in 2007 giving greater protection to workers’ rights. Social groups and organizations emerged in recent years to help migrant workers not just find work but protect their interests and exercise their rights. Things are getting better. Despite the global and domestic economy downturn, over 97% migrant workers found jobs in 2009 and, compared to 2008, 1 million some more workers signed up for disability insurance, according to the official statistics. However, the workers’ living condition and social status are far from what they deserve. Behind the low priced made-in-China products, the migrant workers are still paying a high cost in their lives.

What should we do about this problem? Last Train Home, living up to its billing as “An emotionally wrenching portrait of migrant workers in China”, would surely help you understand China behind its supersonic economic growth. However, to solve the problem and improve the life quality of China’s migrant workers, we need to put in more thinking. Some say, “Why don’t we just boycott Chinese goods?” Well, it’s never that easy. Bear in mind, the poor workers would very likely lose their jobs for what you choose to do – a classic backfire. In fact, the power to make a difference is really in the Chinese government’s hand and our job is to give it a push.

The Chinese government, although never having a nice image on human right issues, is taking its steps and measures to make the migrant workers’ life a bit easier. That we know. The officials are proactively looking for solutions, including learning from developed countries such as Britain which had about 400 years of experience handling migrant worker issues, to improve the situation. That we know, too. But compared to the many other tasks, the migrant workers’ life quality has never been a real priority. They can certainly do better than that. The international community has been pressing China to advance on the matter and I believe, when more people like you join the force, the voice will be louder and stronger. And better chance the migrant workers will have an improved life sooner.

At least one thing you can do from today – never take the low price tags attached to made-in-China products for granted.