In the spring of 2007 my sister, nephew, and I had a delicious lunch in San Francisco's Chinatown, and browsed through dozens of stores, amazed at all the bargains to be had. I bought a cable car-shaped pencil sharpener, a parasol, a paper lamp shade, and a couple of jackets, among other things. Little did I know that it'd be the last time I'd even consider shopping in Chinatown.
In November, 2008 I reviewed Where Am I Wearing?, and learned more about the lives of the factory workers who turned out these bargains, as well as our shoes, our cell phones, our computer keyboards, and many of the toys my kids play with.
It was enough to make me say, "This Christmas, I'm not sending my spending money to China." We managed to have a fairly China-free Christmas, with the exception of gifts from others, books printed in China (I didn't look) and some things I'd already bought. That meant my kids didn't get the remote-control motorcycles they'd asked for, and my husband didn't get the standing mixer he wanted, even though it was on sale. It also made shopping take longer, with heavy sighs as "perfect" items were placed back on the shelves.
So, why bother? Well, let's start with a typical Chinese factory worker's schedule, according to the National Labor Committee:
- 12-hour shift, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., seven days a week. Overtime beyond that is mandatory.
- Workers are allowed two days off a month.
- Workers sleep in factory dormitories, 6-8 people per room. If they choose to live elsewhere, they still have wages docked for the room.
I feel like I’m serving a prison sentence....The factory is forever pressing down on our heads and will not tolerate even the tiniest mistake. When working, we work continuously. When we eat, we have to eat with lightning speed. When I need to go to the bathroom, I have to try my hardest to control myself, to hold it in and not go. The security guards are like policemen watching over prisoners. We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.It's a pain in the rear to check labels all the time, especially when it means paying more money for basically the same item. Our family gets by just fine on one public employee's income, partly because we're careful with our money and always on the lookout for a bargain. But, a bargain at what cost?
Do you have time to watch a two-minute CNN report about the Chinese factories Wal-Mart uses*?
This week, I read A Year Without 'Made in China,' which is exactly what it sounds like: author Sarah Bongiorni's account of the year she swore off all Chinese-manufactured products. For a full review, see Devourer of Books. I found it an entertaining read, helpful (I'll get to that later), in some cases discouraging, in other cases, funny.
Next on my Made in China reading list:
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli--seems kind of similar to Where Am I Wearing, but different.
Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows: "For anyone who's ever wondered what's behind the ubiquitous "Made in China" labels -- and how the United States economy has become so entwined with the Chinese -- Fallows' book offers an engaging, informative and occasionally prescient glimpse into the reasons why."
When I took my kids shoe shopping this week, I was glad I'd read A Year Without 'Made in China.' I went right ahead and took them to Target (which seems to have more items made in China than, say, Kohls or Fred Meyer) and didn't even bother checking where any of the shoes were made. Why? Because, thanks to Bongiorni, I already knew that any shoe I can afford that my sons will wear in public is certain to be made in China.
*For more information about Wal-Mart, I highly recommend the DVD Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.