SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Chinese work conditions like battery chickendom

IT’S a bit worrying when the Chinese start building nuclear power plants next door and are given the full state banquet treatment by our neighbours in Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, writes Suzanne Harrington.

It’s not the Chinese per se which are a cause for concern — or even nuclear power, which at this stage, according to veteran environmentalists Steward Brand and James Lovelock, are now essential for human survival.

It’s not even their human rights record; the Chinese state may execute more of its citizens than any other place on earth, but so does Texas and we seem to not mind very much. As does Saudi Arabia, even as its ruling theocracy continues to mull over granting half of its population the right to vote (the half in possession of vaginas, obviously). It hasn’t put us off doing deals with them over the years, has it?

No, it’s the Chinese business model. The one that requires an alarming number of its companies to string netting around the edges of its factories, to catch workers as they hurl themselves off the factory roof. Not because they are all high on PCP and think they can fly, but because their working conditions are the human equivalent of battery chickendom. (Often these workers are making components for products on which we in the West have formed a reliance bordering on addiction — the guts of your smartphone and laptop are probably Chinese).

It used to be the American business model was the one that made our eyes water. Presenteeism taken to such an extent that you virtually live in the workplace; holidays and family time frowned upon as frivolous, and corporate loyalty demanded to exceed any lingering loyalty to anything else. Like your life.

None of this has changed, of course — America still sucks the marrow from its workers, and for those who can’t work, forget it. A superpower ideologically opposed to statutory maternity leave and adequate health care provision is on the same spectrum as the Saudi ban on women driving and voting. Worse, actually, in practical terms.

It’s astonishing what people will accept and normalise, as long as they are kept financially anxious, inward-looking and cowed. As the late great American comic and commentator George Carlin said: “Politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have owners. They own you.”

And now the Chinese state is being presented as the new owner. Much sucky-uppery has been occurring.

The Chinese business model — workers flying off the tops of factories — is being wheeled out as the new efficient. We in the West, despite our flaring stress levels, remain flabby and unproductive; America, for all its corporate fascism, has had its day.

Let us look east then, to the giant factories of China for inspiration. Where living at work has been taken one step further to become literal — workers sleep in factory dorms, and teenagers work 15 hour shifts for 50 cents an hour*. Is this the new business model? Because we may need an awful lot of circus netting.

*source: US NGO National Labour Committee investigating Microsoft factories in Dongguan, China


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