The human cost of ‘Made in China’

Chinese workers are exposed to countless perils — but they often have nowhere to turn for protection
By Diana Fu - Published on October 16, 2018

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“Made in China” comes with high human costs. The 260 million migrant workers in China who make our iPhones and iPads pay, sometimes literally with their lives, for our consumer electronics. Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, is responsible for producing Apple products. It made headlines in 2010 when a string of migrant workers attempted suicide by leaping from the factory’s high-rise dormitories. Yet there are other, more silent, killers: deadly chemicals such as n-hexane, which is used to clean iPad screens. After cleaning more than 700 iPad screens a day, workers who were kept in the dark about the poisonous substances suddenly find themselves hospitalized and left on their own to deal with their illness.

What happens when workers need to advocate for core labour rights, such as the right to injury compensation? They can’t turn to the labour union. China’s 260 million migrant workers are represented by just one union — the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is essentially an arm of the government. They also can’t turn to independent unions, because those are banned. With few options, some workers have turned to labour NGOs, which operate in legal grey zones. Complicit follows a labour activist based in Hong Kong as he attempts to mobilize injured workers in Guangdong Province, facing struggles common to all rights activists in China.

On the other side of the social spectrum is a group of elite Chinese businesswomen. China’s Chairman Mao Zedong called for the Chinese Communist Party to liberate women as part of the 1949 Communist Revolution. It was Mao who declared that women ought to “hold up half the sky.” The Other Half of The Sky: Stories of Chinese Business Women showcases several businesswomen who have become the Oprahs and Cheryl Sandbergs of China.  

Their success stories, however, do not mean that Chinese women actually hold up half the sky.  No woman has ever been named a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest decision-making body.  China ranks 100th out of 144 countries in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report (Canada comes in at 17).  Given the odds, how did these Chinese businesswomen succeed in joining the ranks of the global business elite? 

Diana Fu is the host of TVO's China: Here and Now documentary series. She's an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto and an affiliate of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Her research examines the relationship between state power and civil society in contemporary China. Fu's book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, won the American Political Science Association’s Gregory Luebbert Prize for the best book in comparative politics.  

China: Here and Now is a major, multi-part documentary series that examines the cultural, economic, and political implications of China's growing global influence. It airs on TVO Tuesday nights until November 13. Or, stream it at TVO.org.


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