Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Monday, 18 March 2013

To be, or not to be

This is not only a classic question from Hamlet; the audit inspectors of the Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO) often face this dilemma when they make their factory visits. At the beginning I was sceptical about these audits, which I assumed were ‘performances’ by the brand-name companies that ordered them. However after I had a talk with the leading inspector of the ICO in January 2013, I realised that there existed some real human struggles under all the paperwork involved in brand-name companies’ audit reports.

Like most people’s doubts, originally I had more doubts than belief in those audits, and the reason I went to talk with the ICO’s leading inspector, Ms. Chu, was to confirm my disbelief rather than convince myself of their value. Ms. Chu is an experienced inspector; she has been in the business for six years. Her talk partly echoed my own sceptical impression of audit reports. Given that inspectors only spend a very short time in the factories they visit, most of the time accompanied by the factory managers, to what extent can those audit reports reflect the reality in factories? ‘It depends very much on the experience of the inspector’, Ms. Chu said: the inspector has to ‘feel’ the environment and ‘sense’ the problem regardless of the managers’ influence. On this note, I believe it not only depends on the inspector’s experience but also his or her conscientiousness. Based on her experience, I asked what are the most common problems in factories? The hygiene conditions in dormitories and safety in the factories themselves are easy to inspect; a trickier problem, to my surprise, is not the workers’ wages, but the use of child labour.

I was surprised that nowadays the problem of child labour still exists; to my very limited knowledge, this was a problem of the last century. However, according to Ms. Chu, this is still a common situation not only in China, but also in Vietnam or factories in other Asian countries. ‘The problem is whether to report them’, Ms. Chu said. The condition of those child workers certainly is very different from Marx’s expectation. According to Marx: We consider the tendency of modern industry to make children and juvenile persons of both sexes cooperate in the great work of social reproduction, as a progressive, sound and legitimate tendency, although under capital it was distorted into an abomination. In a rational state of society every child whatever, from the age of 9 years, ought to become a productive labourer in the same way that no able-bodied adult person ought to be exempted from the general law of nature, viz.: to work in order to be able to eat, and work not only with the brain but with the hands too.[1] Those children are not working in order to contribute to ‘social reproduction’, but merely to support their families, out of cruel poverty. Brand-name companies asked inspectors to pay more attention to the child labour issue, so when Ms. Chu first encountered the child labour issue in one factory, she immediately wrote it down in her report. She thought she was helping those little children to get away from factory work. Three months later, at the client’s request, they went back to the same factory to check the improvement. They didn’t see any child labour for sure, but Ms. Chu overheard that those children’s families were about to collapse, and the children might be working at another factory for their living. Usually the strong ones among those families (the parents) can’t work, therefore the families were only left with grandparents and little children, and they need a bowl of rice. Ms. Chu deeply regretted having reported those cases of child labour because ‘They were actually much better off in the first factory. Even when we took them out of the first factory, they still would have to work at another factory, where the conditions would be even worse.’ However, as an inspector, she has to report this situation. Since then, whenever she or her team encounter the child labour problem, the old question: To be, or not to be, always echoes in their minds.

If every child from nine years old can work as they wish, as Marx expected, society would be filled with young people creating and producing. Unfortunately those children working at factories in China or Vietnam have no choice but to work in factories, not to mention that they have no chance for education; their future, for sure, would not be as a ‘productive worker’, working where they wish.  This problem certainly cannot be resolved by audits on factories, like many other labour issues. Only when a country has a comprehensive social welfare system will we see some signs of resolving this or similar problems.

[1], Many thanks to Mr. Cemal Burak Tansel, the PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham for this valuable link. 

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