Then and now: 150 years of exploitation

In the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx quotes extensively from the reports of British factory commissioners, published in the 1850s and 1860s as part of the movement to regulate factories and reduce their worst abuses. It's instructive to compare some of these quotes with a recent article from The New York Times detailing conditions at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa revealed after a federal raid against the illegal immigrants working there. Lines from the British reports are in blockquotes, page numbers refer to the 1967 New World printing of the 1887 English translation and can be found here.

"Some [under-age workers] said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week."
At a rolling-mill where the proper hours were from 6 a.m. to 5 1/2 p.m., a boy worked about four nights every week till 8 1/2 p.m. at least . . . and this for six months. Another, at 9 years old, sometimes made three 12-hour shifts running, and, when 10, has made two days and two nights running. (247)
"a Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. 'I was very sad,' he said, 'and I felt like I was a slave.'"
J. Lightbourne: "Am 13 . . . We worked last winter till 9 (evening), and the winter before till 10. I used to cry with sore feet every night last winter." (236)
"Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently."
(On 270 workers under age 18 at match factories) "A range of the working-day from 12 to 14 or 15 hours, night-labour, irregular meal-times, meals for the most part taken in the very workrooms that are pestilent with phosphorus." (236)
"'My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,' [Elmer L.] said. 'They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.'"

Maybe you've encountered people who still believe in the forward march of progress - it's a pretty strange notion in the face of evidence like this. True, there are some differences between America today and Britain 150 years ago - the management of Agriprocessors is more likely to be punished for these crimes than factory owners in Marx's time, and unlike 150 years ago, no one is willing to publicly claim that child labor, excessive hours, and dangerous factory conditions are fully justified.

Except this "progress" vanishes if you expand your view outside the United States. Conditions every bit as inhuman as those Marx analyzed are the norm in 中国/China and Việt Nam and many other countries, and the capitalists’ violent reaction to any attempt at limiting their abuses is also very similar. Opinion leaders ranging from Nicholas Kristof, who incessantly cloaks himself in the mantle of humanitarianism, to Thomas Friedman, who is the acknowledged master of explaining to business elites why everything they do is good, are every bit the match of 19th century apologists for massive inequality and shocking levels of exploitation.

It’s worth looking a bit more closely at Chinese capitalism, which at least in terms of labor relations has been functioning in a very pure form - exploiting the workers beyond their capacity to sustain themselves. Recently the state has begun making efforts to limit the natural operations of the market, implementing a new labor law that sets regulations on minimum wages, overtime pay, and freedom to fire workers, while opening new routes for workers to seek redress when their employers try to evade the law. The government is clearly concerned about the growing social instability borne of extreme exploitation, and at the same time is looking to manage a transition to higher-order production. So China won’t necessarily regret the departure of sweatshops if it can expand in more profitable sectors.

Chinese capitalists, however, share no such strategic vision of sustained and stable accumulation. This article chronicles the myriad ways they are seeking to eviscerate the new labor law:
"A lecture fee of 2300 yuan [over $300] for two days is definitely worthwhile - avoiding expenditures like overtime pay for the staff will bring profits more than a thousand times higher than the 2300 yuan fee," exclaimed business owner 王/Wang of 东莞/Dongwan at the "Strategies for enterprise managers to deal with the new Labor Contract Law" training session. . . . This kind of training already has a large market. . . . Labor law specialists and lawyers have come forward one after another to find loopholes in the law and provide confidential briefings to businesses.
The reporter then goes on to record the many techniques companies are using to evade the new labor law and squeeze greater profits out of their workers by swindling them on wages, overtime, and benefits. Exemplary cases include the factory that forced its workers to sign a contract written only in English, another that had its workers sign two separate contracts so they would work full-time in reality but part-time for legal purposes and thereby reduce overtime and benefits payments, and others that wrote out the terms of the contract illegibly or simply hid them with a piece of paper when they had the workers sign it.

Chinese capitalists also tell their side of the story - and a heartrending one it is. Businessmen are being hit from all sides: rising prices for raw materials, extraordinary wage increases mandated by the new labor law, a jump in lawsuits filed by workers under the law - all are subjecting these poor bosses to “increased pressures of management”. One maker of cellphone chips in 深圳/Shenzhen complains bitterly at being forced to raise his workers’ wages from 750 yuan/month (around $110) to 900 yuan ($130). The owner says that these workers, who will be making the fabulous sum of just over $1500/year working grueling shifts that in all likelihood span 6 days each week and 12 or more hours each day, will drive him out of business - unless (ominously) he can “think of a new way to deal with it.”

Some of these complaints are the completely predictable cries of outrage from the exploiters that always accompany any slight reduction in the rate of exploitation. Yet we shouldn’t just dismiss them out of hand - competition among the small enterprises of China is fierce, and a slight reduction in the exploitation of labor might drive some of these factories to the wall. Here again Marx is useful:
competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation. (555)
In other words, the brutal exploitation of labor is a product not of individual immorality, but the laws of the economy itself - the freer the market, the more desperate the plight of workers. It's as true in Iowa as it is in 广东/Guangdong, and it was as true 150 years ago as it is today.


May Burma said...

If the farmers cannot sell the products with the right price for them to survive they will go to work in factories. it is not exploitation if the workers are happy to do it and free to leave if they do not like the conditions.

Jake said...

Any enterprise that does not give every worker the power to participate in the decisions that affect him or her, or that denies him or her fair compensation for work done, is exploitative. Workers may be free to leave whenever they want, but this is only the freedom to choose your boss - a hollow freedom indeed next to the freedom to find a fulfilling and empowering job.

And I think we can safely say that even those forced from the land by free trade or market reform, or lured to the city by consumerism or the prospect of greater liberty, are not "happy" to submit to a degrading and exhausting work regimen that barely provides them a subsistence wage. These are the sham freedoms offered by the market.