Corporate Responsibility: Again

Continuing the conversation of an earlier post about cheap labour in developing countries, I wanted to post a video I found on my friend Rick’s (highly improved!) site – Panda Passport.

Essentially the video shows how employees are exploited by a factory in Shenzhen, China, that produce goods for more developed nations – in this case, Disney books that appear to be going to Japan.

It was long my opinion that a company like Disney is responsible for where it’s products come from, and therefore are responsible for the working conditions of the laborers who make said products.

Now it’s easy to just lump the responsibility on the big bad demon that is the Disney Corporation. But to get a clear picture of what really happens, you must first realize the deceit that most “sweat shop” managers are capable of. I am willing to bet that when the top honchos from Japan, the US, the EU or where-have-you, come and visit their manufacturers they are presented with a shining factory with more than suitable conditions. The company heads likely leave feeling that they are doing a great service to these workers.

Fifty years ago there was a movement in China called The Great Leap Forward, whereby then leader Mao Zedong set overly ambitious goals for the country and funnelled the responsibility of these goals down to regional politicians. When these goals could not be met, out of fear of losing their positions (often the only thing keeping them and their families safe from the chaos sweeping the nation) the local leaders lied to visiting dignitaries checking up on progress. Due to this, Beijing had no clear idea of the actual status of things, and quietly closed their eyes in contentment of progress as about 30,000,000 people starved to death.

Now, though not likely starving to death, much the same thing is happening in today’s blue collar workplace in China. When the money comes to visit, the management fears job loss, scrubs up the factory and makes things look good (“Would all amputees please take the day off – without pay”) while also promising to meet unrealistic targets that the foreign buyers ask for based on previous meeting of unrealistic targets – read: forcing people to work grueling amounts of overtime for no extra pay. The brass leaves, and keeps the money coming none the wiser to the plight of the common worker.

I’m not going to say that the foreign money is completely naive to the situation – but I am willing to bet that it’s not overtly obvious to them, any more so than it is apparent to the average consumer where their produce comes from (it’s not grown in the back of the supermarket?).

There is a chain in the retail business. Manufacturer –> Wholesaler –> Retailer –> Customer. If you can blame one part of the chain, you can blame them all – and that means you and I.

But what I will suggest (as I did before), that it is not 100%, or even 50% the chain’s job to fix this. Business makes money like people survive. It’s its nature, its only true function, everything else is just for looks. We can’t expect businesses to have self-impossed ethics, any more than we can assume that without society, a human would have them. As such, we need 3rd party intervention for these things, and that’s only going to come from governments that actually care about their people.

Governments aren’t supposed to be businesses. Governments are supposed to be responsible citizens. Responsible citizens should have ethics, and in turn so should governments. Somewhere this got lost in most countries. I make the (not so) humble suggestion that our pressures be put not on guilting souless multi-national corporations but in working to assure that governments have the power to protect their people. We can’t blame the wolf for abusing the sheep, that’s its need for survival, but we can fault the shepherd for not being vigilant.

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