Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Solidarity with Chinese Workers?

This week’s Lincoln Avenue interview might be a bit tough for listeners in the Mahoning Valley, because it focuses on the problems faced by Chinese workers – the very people who are doing some jobs that used to be done here. So the first thing I asked my guest, Katie Quan, is why Americans should care about the situation of Chinese workers.

The answer isn’t revolutionary, but it does matter: it’s not just about human rights but of fair economic competition and the broader interests of workers around the world. Chinese labor is cheap because it’s so exploitative. Workers are regularly not paid; have almost no rights to object to their hours (she describes how some people work 17 hours days, 7 days a week), working conditions, or treatment; and don’t have the knowledge or skills to organize to stand up for themselves. Quan argues that the American labor movement can help Chinese workers fight for better conditions and better pay, largely through outreach that brings workers together across global divides. Chinese workers, she says, need to know that Americans care about their rights, not just buying cheap clothes. Quan has been working with American labor leaders to create a dialogue with Chinese workers. Last year, the Change to Win coalition of labor unions sent a delegation to China to explore strategies for building global solidarity.

Paradoxically, Quan also notes that the terrible situation she describes applies only to the lower class of Chinese workers. Labor laws protect most workers in China, but the largely migrant factory workers are especially vulnerable. Some have even been killed for trying to fight for their rights.

The point, I think, is that Americans who have lost jobs to Chinese workers should not blame the workers. We should look to the system and recognize that improving conditions for Chinese workers might help level the economic playing field a bit. And even if it doesn’t, we should not accept when any worker is poorly treated, underpaid (or not paid at all), and forced to work in unsafe conditions.

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