Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Whiteness and Corporate Social Responsibility in China

There's been a good deal of discussion in the corporate media lately about the harsh and often unsafe working conditions in Chinese factories. It turns out that the folks who assemble those shiny gadgets that dominate the American consumer landscape - the smart phones, tablets, laptops, and such - lead less than shiny lives. They routinely work six day weeks, ten to twelve hour days, and spend much of that time standing or sitting on backless stools. They are sometimes forced to work double shifts or given corporal punishment for minor infractions. And they live in overcrowded dorm rooms, with as many as twenty people sharing three rooms.

A recent episode of PRI's This American Life featured monologist Mike Daisy describing some extremely disturbing things he learned from talking directly to Chinese factories workers about their treatment. A few of weeks later, as part of their iEconomy series, the New York Times published an exposé detailing similar safety problems and labor abuses. Although the fact that most electronics products are manufactured in China by exploited workers could not have been a big surprise to anyone who's been paying attention, this story received a flood of attention. The reason for this, I'm guessing, has a great deal to do with what these factories were making, for these were not just any factories. These were the factories where the Apple Ipad is assembled.

Apple's most brilliantly realized product may in fact be its brand image. It is seen as different from other companies, as holding itself to a higher standard, as somehow embodying antiestablishment, countercultural values. These stories, however, threaten to cast the company as just another corporate miscreant, willing to think differently about product innovation maybe, but sticking with tradition when it comes to labor exploitation. This contradiction creates a sort of cognitive dissonance for many Apple fans, engendering the sort of moral shock that animates Mike Daisy's This American Life story.

The ensuing conversation has, predictably, taken shape as a debate about corporate social responsibility and whether Apple is ultimately good or bad for Chinese workers. Critics of Apple, like Mike Daisy, point to the harsh working conditions in the factories and the meagerness of Apple's efforts to improve them, especially compared to the resources they put into ensuring product quality and brand image. According to these critics, Apple has a responsibility to ensure that working conditions among it suppliers meet internationally accepted standards. Their position is not really that Apple is bad for workers, just that they are not nearly as good as they ought to be.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the status quo argue that Apple is good for Chinese workers because, they claim, what China is going through is a necessary and inevitable phase of industrial development. These commentators suggest that the sweatshop phase of development is itself beneficial because it lifts people out of poverty, gives them an alternative to village life, and improves the status of women. They even suggest that working conditions are bound to improve, as employers are forced to compete for workers. The critics reject, meanwhile, the notion that brutal exploitation is necessary or inevitable and insist that everyone, everywhere, is entitled to the basic protections that workers in developed countries take for granted. 

While these debates tend to be focused on how workers are treated and the degree to which corporations should be held responsible for working conditions in their supply chains, one obvious issue rarely comes up in the corporate media. That is the question of workers' ability to determine their own working conditions through collective bargaining. Although it occasionally merits a passing mention, as just one right among others, collective bargaining is rarely acknowledged as the fundamental right that made all the others possible.

Organized labor has always been the only effective counterbalance to the power of corporations. Perhaps this is one of the reasons labor history is unfailingly marginalized by the corporate media. At the same time, of course, our collective memory is being steadily degraded by corporate funded think tanks constantly working to turn the labor movement into a historical footnote. The fact remains, however, that the labor protections taken for granted in developed countries did not originate from corporate good will or from a competition for workers. And they certainly did not develop out of some deterministic progression to the next stage of social evolution (an ironically Marxist notion for a capitalist to hold). They were hard won through a difficult and often bloody struggle by workers to organize and make demands.

There is another subtle but insidious factor helping out in the effort to downplay the significance of organized labor for the Chinese workers' struggle. That factor is racism, which should come as no surprise, since labor control is the original reason for racism. Consider the way in which the issue is typically framed. As I said, rather than discussing the reasons why workers' are denied the right genuinely to affect their own circumstances, most critics focus on the responsibility of corporations and U.S. consumers to insist on better treatment. When we cast the labor rights debate as a debate about corporate and consumer social responsibility, Chinese workers end up in the role of helpless victims.

This tendency to see the predicament of Chinese workers as something that companies like Apple or their customers can solve by insisting on improved working conditions is simply another instance of white savior complex. This attitude, like its colonial antecedent white man's burden, is a form of paternalism rooted in a tendency to view colonial others as somehow less than fully human. The sine-qua-non of the white supremacist imagination is that only white people are seen as individuals who exist for their own sake, and possess their own intentions, aspirations, and dignity. The rights of workers to organize may be getting short shrift in this debate, in part, because of a difficulty among white liberals to imagine Chinese workers' capacity to determine for themselves their own best interests.  

Well meaning white liberals cannot advance the cause of human liberation as long as we imagine that we have a special responsibility to intervene in the suffering of poor victims in far off places. The problem is not only that this strategy is ineffective; more often than not, it reinforces the very structures of oppression that are the true source of the suffering. The emphasis on corporate social responsibility, for example, accepts and even endorses the unchecked power of the corporation. These white savior strategies thus distract attention from the deeper structural issue. By concentrating on ostensibly bad actors, we are able to avoid looking at our own complicity in the neocolonial, neoliberal institutions of global capitalism, the very existence of which depends on an unending supply of exploitable labor.   

 Barry Deutsch / CC BY 3.0