The High Cost of Cheap Chinese Goods

This week, the Salt Lake Tribune is running a must-read series of reports by Loretta Tofani about the human cost of the cheap goods we get from China. Tofani begins with the story of Wei Chaihua, a 44-year-old former farmer who sought factory work in order to give his children education and a better future. Wei didn’t know that such a thing as an outdoor gas oven existed until he got a job sanding and polishing steel in a factory that manufactured them, and he didn’t know about the disease silicosis until he was diagnosed with it.

Wei is hardly an isolated case, Tofani explains:

With each new report of lead detected on a made-in-China toy, Americans express outrage: These toys could poison children. But Chinese workers making the toys — and countless other products for America — touch and inhale carcinogenic materials every day, all day long: Benzene. Lead. Cadmium. Toluene. Nickel. Mercury.

Many are dying. They have fatal occupational diseases.

Mostly they are young, in their 20s and 30s and 40s. But they are dying, slow difficult deaths, caused by the hazardous substances they use to make products for the world — and for America. Some say these workers are paying the real price for America’s cheap goods from China.

“In terms of responsibility to Chinese society, this is a big problem for Americans,” said Zhou Litai, a lawyer from the city of Chongqing who has represented tens of thousands of dying workers in Chinese courts.

The toxins and hazards exist in virtually every industry, including furniture, shoes, car parts, electronic items, jewelry, clothes, toys and batteries interviews with workers confirm. The interviews were corroborated by legal documents, medical journal articles, medical records, import documents and official Chinese reports.

In most cases, U.S. companies don’t own the Chinese factories that produce their goods; smaller companies may not even visit the factories, and larger companies that try to audit their suppliers meet with limited success. China enacted a labor law with rigorous standards in 2002, but enforcement is lax. Ignoring labor-law violations lets the economy keep booming, at the cost of workers’ health and lives:

The Chinese Ministry of Health in 2005 noted at least 200 million of China’s labor force of 700 million workers were routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and life-threatening diseases in factories. “More than 16 million enterprises in China have been subjecting workers to high, poisonous levels of toxic chemicals,” the ministry said at a conference on occupational diseases in Beijing, which was reported by the state-controlled media. The ministry particularly blamed “foreign-funded” enterprises that exported goods.

China has more deaths per capita from work-related illnesses each year than any other country, according to the ILO. In 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, 386,645 Chinese workers died of occupational illnesses, according to Chinese government data compiled by the ILO and cited in the July 14, 2006, Journal of Epidemiology. Millions more live with fatal diseases caused by factory work, other epidemiologists estimated in the article.

The number of workers living with fatal diseases does not include those who suffer amputations. Primitive, unsafe machines with blades that lack safety guards have caused millions of limb amputations since 1995, according to lawyers for Chinese workers.

The scale of the fatal diseases, deaths and amputations challenge the common wisdom — recited in both the Chinese and American press — that U.S. trade with China has helped Chinese factory workers improve their lives and living standards. “If I had known about the serious effects of the chemicals, I would not possibly have taken that job,” said Chen Honghuan, 40, who was poisoned while handling cadmium to make batteries for export to Rayovac, EverReady, Energizer and Panasonic in the U.S.

Some workers are striking, or suing the factory owners who failed to provide safe working conditions. Some accept small payments for their illnesses or disability and return home to die. Meanwhile, in the U.S., some companies try to ensure that their supplier factories follow the law, and some consumers seek out products made under safe and healthy conditions – but, overall, awareness and willingness to take such steps is far from widespread. In the final article in the series, Tofani reports on some of the predictions about what it will take to get widespread improvement in conditions for Chinese workers.

Han Dongfang, a Chinese labor activist expelled from China in 1993, believes the idea of business leaders voluntarily auditing factories — or paying a company to check that factories abide by health and safety laws — is ridiculous. “It is naive to expect foreign companies to promote good labor practices,” said Han, who works from Hong Kong at China Labour Bulletin. “The reason they go to China is to take advantage of cheap labor and improve their profits.”

For its part, the Chinese government acknowledges that millions of workers routinely suffer fatal diseases from toxins used in “foreign-funded” enterprises. It blames the U.S. and other countries for the carcinogenic chemicals and other toxins that are used to make products for export without regard for the Chinese people. …

Regardless, Chinese workers will demand safer work environments, according to labor activist Han. As more Chinese workers get occupational diseases or amputations, the number of strikes and labor actions will spiral in China, he said.

He believes strikes and lawsuits also will challenge U.S. and other overseas companies that do business in China. “Chinese workers must hold foreign companies responsible and take legal actions insisting on the protection of workers’ rights,” he said.

Garrett Brown, the California industrial hygienist, thinks global change is needed to truly protect workers. The problem is the world economic system — a system that so prizes low wages and low factory costs that workers’ health is ruined, said Brown, who also coordinates the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, a group of 400 professionals working to improve factory conditions.

“Unless you change the world economic system,” he said, “you’re not going to change this system.”

The whole series is well worth reading – and worth remembering the next time you go shopping and see a product that appears to be a bargain.

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