Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world. In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's been missing is the voices of the workers themselves. ---
Chen Ying: "When I went home for the new year, everyone said I had changed. They asked me, what did you do that you have changed so much? I told them that I studied and worked hard. If you tell them more, they won't understand anyway."…
So I spent two years getting to know assembly line workers like these in the south China factory city called Dongguan. Certain subjects came up over and over: how much money they made, what kind of husband they hoped to marry, whether they should jump to another factory or stay where they were. Other subjects came up almost never, including living conditions that to me looked close to prison life: 10 or 15 workers in one room, 50 people sharing a single bathroom, days and nights ruled by the factory clock. Everyone they knew lived in similar circumstances, and it was still better than the dormitories and homes of rural China.
The workers rarely spoke about the products they made, and they often had great difficulty explaining what exactly they did. When I asked Lu Qingmin, the young woman I got to know best, what exactly she did on the factory floor, she said something to me in Chinese that sounded like "qiu xi." Only much later did I realize that she had been saying "QC," or quality control. She couldn't even tell me what she did on the factory floor. All she could do was parrot a garbled abbreviation in a language she didn't even understand.
Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism, the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor. Unlike, say, a traditional maker of shoes or cabinets, the worker in an industrial factory has no control, no pleasure, and no true satisfaction or understanding in her own work. But like so many theories that Marx arrived at sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, he got this one wrong. Just because a person spends her time making a piece of something does not mean that she becomes that, a piece of something. What she does with the money she earns, what she learns in that place, and how it changes her, these are the things that matter. What a factory makes is never the point, and the workers could not care less who buys their products.
Journalistic coverage of Chinese factories, on the other hand, plays up this relationship between the workers and the products they make. Many articles calculate: How long would it take for this worker to work in order to earn enough money to buy what he's making? For example, an entry-level-line assembly line worker in China in an iPhone plant would have to shell out two and a half months' wages for an iPhone.
But how meaningful is this calculation, really? For example, I recently wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine, but I can't afford to buy an ad in it. But, who cares? I don't want an ad in The New Yorker, and most of these workers don't really want iPhones. Their calculations are different. How long should I stay in this factory? How much money can I save? How much will it take to buy an apartment or a car, to get married, or to put my child through school?I would contend that like the historical experience of English workers had some important similarities to that of Chinese workers. It was a rough experience, but there was a sense that they were improving their circumstances.