When contracting with Chinese manufacturers, it's very hard to avoid forced labor

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/01/21/xinjiangs-everywhere.html


If Chinese forced labor sickens you – and it should – you should also turn your eye to the US prison system, where forced labor is the norm, especially in the private prison industry.

This is terrible yes but not sure I like the whataboutism… at least in America prisoners (usually) commited non political crimes and have better conditions.

The USA also doesn’t have murder vans

It’d good to avoid dichotomizing the world into good and evil but lumping all nonperfect societies together isn’t optimal either IMO


Between China’s reputation for stealing IPs or trade secrets and forced labor or extremely poor working conditions (among many other things) i don’t see how companies can be ok with any of it.


Don’t forget the part where those crimes were subject to disproportionate enforcement against minority groups (and/or, in the case of drug-related crimes, also for things that were criminalized disproportionately if they were more prevalent among minority groups).

It’s different from China, but not as different as one might want to think.


again, I disagree. having seen the space between the coasts, rural whites get the boot on their necks for stupid shit all the time. you want to talk about drug crime? I’ve seen allegedly privlidged white folks get arrested for things like putting their as needed pills into a smaller container. Even with the script / doc note they’re told they can’t prove that pill came from that bottle, and without $$$ you can’t fight it. And then if you ever run into another dumb rule now it’s a felony.

In the strongest possible terms I caution you not to buy into the idea China and America are “the same”. We both have problems, but I can go on Wikipedia to pull stuff about Snowden leaks. If I was accused of a capital crime it’d take years to execute me. And I could go on and on.

They want you to think they’re not different - a global conspiracy of autocrats who want to get rid of black and white and make the whole world gray


The high price of cheap goods.


If you are going to accuse someone of whattaboutism, you’ll have more credibility if you don’t immediately rurn around and do more whattaboutism yourself. At least the US prison example is actually about prison labor, the topic of the article.


not sure i follow, thanks for your thoughts

china’s human rights record is demonstrably worse than the US’s. doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique both, but to pretend they’re equivalent is not accurate.

they’re cheap for the consumer, not the rest of the supply chain

Because we (the American/Western consumer) are ok with it. All the gadgets, tools, and toys that we’ve come to expect being ridiculously cheap and getting cheaper are ridiculously cheap because we’d rather have them cost less than not rely on slave labor. If the consumer cared enough to change their buying habits, the companies would change along with us.

Believe me, I’m not claiming any moral high ground here, I’m as guilty as anyone of taking advantage of the cheap shit China makes, just like BB’s business model seems to depend to some degree on selling it.


I don’t think there’s much of a choice, many consumers aren’t in the position to freely shop around. They buy what they can afford, and i understand that companies will try to make things as cheap as they can which typically ends up being Chinese made. It’s a self perpetuating system, though if people had more buying power would they willingly change their buying habits? Maybe not but then manufacturers could be switched to be somewhere else and customers could afford the expense.


Should it be up to the consumer, who for the most part can’t tell about all the steps in manufacturing a product? Even if it says “Made in Germany”, the parts may have been made by forced labor in China using raw materials from environmentally disastrous mines in Africa. It’s like saying it’s up to the consumers if they want to encourage theft by buying stolen goods.


also a lack of information, and a lack of appropriate law.
if product labels proclaimed: “made with chinese prision labor” - people (might) have more of a choice. but that’s never going to happen without law.

similarly, free trade deals would be great: if they involved labor standards, but they don’t.

it’s all very similar to global warming: individual choices are important, but collective action is required


I largely agree, but I think we should be honest with ourselves as individuals in the ways that we perpetuate it as well. This isn’t just a system that’s been foisted upon us for which we can totally blame faceless companies, it’s one we choose to maintain to some degree every time we buy (and sell) cheap Chinese shit that we probably don’t need all that much.

Morally, I think it should probably be up to the consumer in proportion to their ability to gather the information and their ability to make other choices. I don’t think someone making minimum wage has much moral responsibility to make sure the boots they’re buying to keep their kid’s feet warm are ethically sourced, but I do think a lot of folks making billions of dollars of discretionary purchases bear a lot more responsibility.

I totally agree with both your points that there are larger forces than individual choices at work here, but every time we buy that third bluetooth speaker or the camera drone or whatever disposable tech piqued our interest, we’re contributing to the system.

Yet another reason for permanent and substantial tariffs on Chinese imports of all kinds. Their labor and environmental practices will never be acceptable. We need to make it worthwhile for companies to invest in production here and in Europe.

The tariffs don’t directly impact China, everything gets passed along downstream to the consumer. However to your point if the cheap pricing advantage that China has goes away it may very well incentivize consumers and companies to look elsewhere.

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Exactly. Of course. But… it has to be made clear that this is a “forever” tariff, because the cycle from investing in production to making sales to making profit is quite long. If investors aren’t sure the tariff will be here five years from now, it won’t make them confident in investing in production here. That’s the key, it needs to be not a trade war, but something more substantial and permanent, and it has to be explained, “hey we’re doing this as a long-term thing to make it predictablely profitable to manufacture in the US, for reasons of jobs, labor protection, environmental protection, and manufacturing self-sufficiency, so we commit to this tariff for the next ten years.” Something like that.


Companies aren’t OK with the IP theft; in the linked article, that (rather than the slave labor) is mainly what caused “Brand Y” to part ways with their Chinese supplier. And I’d bet China gets a lot more international pressure on this than they do on human rights.

But when it comes to labor conditions, that’s a feature, not a bug. Companies know perfectly well that it’s not magic that makes overseas manufacturing cheap – it’s that workers are cheap, because they don’t have the rights Western workers do. To the extent that companies feel the need to justify this at all, the excuses are

  1. lower wages are offset by lower cost of living and
  2. globalization will eventually mean an equilibrium where wages and rights are the same everywhere

At the macro level, (1) is bollocks; no one lives medievally by choice, and if people had tolerable living conditions they wouldn’t be cheap workers. It’s all part of the same equation.

(2) is a valid point, but if you follow the logic, it’s hardly a rosy picture. Equilibrium between China and the US might mean the US moving closer to Chinese labor conditions rather than the other way round. There’s already evidence of that, and US businesses would be happy to see it. Meanwhile, as China gets richer, it doesn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg (i.e. its supply of dirt-cheap labor), and that’s probably why it’s developing its population of slave workers.

The whole essence of globalization is that you can do things cheaper by moving the exploitation out of sight – either to a foreign country, or behind the walls of a labor camp. The phenomenon seems inevitable whenever people demand uncritical cheapness. But I think even a little bit of consumer supply-chain awareness can help, even if there’s no fix for the overall problem.


Then Europe should add tariffs not only to Chinese goods, but also to USA for renegading on the Paris agreement and using forced labor. Good in theory, but once countries start retaliating we risk a total collapse of international trade. The trick is trying to figure out just how hard you can push and still get desirable results.


Labor is starting to move to places like Vietnam from China because China is getting too expensive. Same thing happened with Taiwan, back in the day (remember when cheap goods were made in Taiwan?)


Ah the poor rural whites thing. Some non coastal states by white vs black incarceration rate per 100,000
Kansas - 418 / 3306
Missouri - 495 / 233
Nebraska - 282 / 2452
Iowa - 324 / 3473
South Dakota - 508 / 4664
Minnesota - 216 / 2321 (Minnesota stands out for a higher rate still for their native population at 2646)
North Dakota - 245 / 1671 (See Minnesota 1984)
I could go on, but I think it is fair to say that pointing to the plight of rural noncoastal whites doesn’t change how disproportionate the enforcement of our nonpolitical crimes are. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html