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Sweatshop Smiles

August 1st, 2009

smilesRecently, I was interviewed by the managing editor of Digital Journal, who wanted me to talk about how Chinese workers suffered in sweatshop-like conditions. He was surprised that I refused to acknowledge the generally preconceived notion. After providing a sound bite, I sent along a copy of a picture that I took years ago, which accompanied the article.

Some background here. The image at the top-left was created for a brochure that a U.S. client was putting together for customers who wanted assurances that workers in China were not abused, or otherwise taken advantage of. The other photo, at the bottom-right, was from work on a metals project.

In some of the talks I’ve given, I have thrown these pictures up on a screen. I have asked whether these individuals appear unhappy. Those who have challenged my rather pragmatic views on China manufacturing felt compelled to come up with explanations for the smiles.  2

No, these people were not paid to mug for the camera. Nor were they coerced in any way. Management allowed the pictures to be taken, but did not signal workers to respond one way or another. Yes, I tended to work with factory owners who treated their workers well. This may have made a difference. Then again, these scenes were so common in South China.

The worker in the bottom picture has no shirt on, by the way, because of the extreme heat and lack of air conditioning in the plant. I don’t know about you, but he looks happier than any American I’ve ever seen in his day job, and he probably earns less than $100/month. This is cultural, and one of the reasons that China has drawn so many orders from around the world. And it goes beyond the common explanation of 吃苦 (eating bitterness).

In any event, food for thought. Anyone wishing to comment or complain is welcome to send a direct note to: paulmidler [@] gmail [dot] com.

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