This appeared in Mute magazine
In June of 2000 58 Chinese people died of mass suffocation in the container of a lorry that arrived on a ferry at Dover. They died trying to enter the UK illegally. The direct cause of these deaths was the blocking of the air vents worked into the container by the driver, a Dutchman, Perry Wacker. He is the worst of criminals, a panicker lacking the basic nerve required, in this case, cutting the air supply from a fear of being caught. The reporting of the case by large sections of the British media was either downright callous, or sympathetic in abstract terms only, the horror felt from putting ourselves in the shoes of those who died, presumed to be too much.
In early February of 2004 19 Chinese workers who had entered the UK illegally died by drowning on the dangerous shoreline of Morecambe, Lanacashire, sands rich in cockles. This time the reporting of what happened was more sympathetic. Once again the direct cause of their deaths was the reckless and incompetent greed of those employing them. It was reported that one of those who died, Guo Binlong made a call on his mobile phone to his wife in the village of Zelang near Fuqing City not long before he drowned in which he said, “Maybe I’m going to die. It’s a tiny mistake by my boss. He should have called us back an hour ago.”
Heartbreaking, two times over: the tiny mistake and that that’s how Guo Binlong saw it; and the futility of the call. All the reporting implied that none of the 19 could read English or perhaps even speak it, and therefore would not have understood the sign up by the beach that said “Fast rising tides and hidden channels. In emergency ring 999.” Perhaps if it had been read and understood, even as the danger became obvious, there would have been a reluctance to ring 999. In another case involving a 40 year old Chinese man, Zhang Guo Hua, who entered the UK illegally and who died in Hartlepool after working a 24 hour shift in a plastics ‘feeder’ factory for Samsung, it was in no one’s interests, as the reporter David Leigh put it, neither employers or fellow workers, to make a fuss. He was cremated without an Inquest. And for Guo Binlong one of the technological wonders of the present era of globalization, the mobile phone, that allowed a phone call from the darkness of Morecambe Bay with the cold water rising, to a village in China, was of itself useless to him. In contrast, a young London woman was happily saved from sinking mud on the Thames shore by use of her phone.
The reporting of these deaths though more sympathetic, quickly latched on to ruthless and criminal gangmasters as being responsible. Though they have remained largely unnamed the condemnation was far stronger than in the case of Perry Wacker. The broadsheet papers talked of these gangsters using stolen 4-wheel drives in the same horrified tones that they portray loan sharks, as if the billions made by the “high-street” banks belonged to a different moral universe. No, these gangsters were ‘tough scousers with torn jeans’ and mixed in with them Triads and Snakeheads.
In the same period as these horrific deaths two other types of Chinese people in the UK are becoming important to its economy: students and tourists. All the students pay full overseas fees of 10,000 pounds and in 2003 there were estimated to be 25,000 students making 250 million for British Universities, a fourfold increase in three years. In 2004, the estimate is of 35,000 students. The attractions for British Universities is obvious. For the students it offers the chance of university education when places are so limited in China, and when a British degree is said to look especially good on CVs. What is certain is that the British government is not seeking to reduce their numbers, even when some also work in the black economy to help pay their way.
In October 2003, it was reported that the European Union was expected to approve a new visa regime that will give Chinese people easier access to Europe. Chinese tour groups are expected to be given ‘approved destination status’. This almost automatic visa granting would have an in-built safety clause from the EU’s point of view in that Chinese tour operators would be heavily punished if any of their clients failed to return to China. This does not apply to the UK which is outside the Schengen Agreement, but is equally keen for the money to be generated by such tourism. This is not negligible. Since 1998 the number of Chinese overseas travelers has almost doubled to 16.6 million. That is only a fraction of its 1.3 billion population but the prediction is for 100 million overseas travelers by 2020, making them the world’s biggest travelers. The UK does not want to be left behind but is seeking watertight agreements with the Chinese government to take back failed asylum seekers and to issue new papers to those who deliberately destroy them, an issue the Blair government made much of after the Morecambe Bay horror.
These numbers and prospective numbers are another indication of the development of a middle-class in China, middle class in its consumption possibilities, what might otherwise be called a nouveau riche. A copycat nouveau riche highlighted by the recent “BMW case”. The wife of a rich property owner deliberately ran over the wife of a peasant, Liu Zhongxia, whose tractor she claimed, had scratched a wing mirror on her BMW in Harbin, Heliongjiang province, the heart of North East China’s rest-belt, mimicking the Long Island heiress who recently maimed a few in similar fashion after a nigh club entry argument. The driver, Mrs Su, who had also paid someone to take her driving test, was acquitted as no witnesses had dared to turn up. That such bad behaviour and the incomes and spending power it allows now exist, it is hardly surprising given the dynamic growth of its industrial economy. It can be argued that only by the policies of the nationalist Communist Party determined to allow in western capital only on its own terms, however much that might be wishful thinking, has this growth has taken place. It is equally the case that it results from the shift of so much industrial production to China from the first world, to take advantage of a low-wage workforce, one which is also producing this nouveau riche. The divisions of levels of income and possibilities in China are now so great that they might be called class divisions, and so obvious that the new Communist Party leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have referred to it and of the need to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Beyond the never-ending campaign to root out the corruption of officials and their parasitic relation to the peasantry, this sounds like wishful thinking.
There are not going to be 1.3 billion Chinese in the ‘middle-class’ level global consumer class. What would they be producing? Even in the ‘first world’ it is a bogus promise’. In the case of China, with such an across-the-board global consumer class, the global environmental crisis would be obvious even to those who do not wish to see it. Instead the situation as it is, and as it is developing, is eminently suitable to the global investor class and its trans-national corporations and companies. As Oscar Romero puts it with the ruthless clarity of ‘Third World’ analysts, , what matters to them is that ‘national markets become increasingly liberalised so that they can seek the thin strata with high income in the underdeveloped countries…they do not aim to sell to the entire population, it would be sufficient for 300 million in the upper-income brackets out of the total Chinese to become their customers, though this may create a dangerous gap between the two Chinas.’ (Oscar Romero: The Myth of Development: Zed Books). To manage this dangerous gap, what better than a highly sophisticated one-party state which can maintain a low-wage industrial assembly class, itself privileged from an even larger and lower-waged rural class. 300 million is enough, it dwarfs the present US market.
Taken with similarly proportionate figures in India, this development is a godsend to the global investor class which, as the SE Asian ‘financial crisis’ showed was faced with a problem of global over-production; when a financial analyst also trading in snappy one-liners, Ed Yardeni, talked of the world needing all the yuppies it can get. Looked at in this light, the Chinese one-party system may be the more reliable given the stunning defeat of the BJP party in India in the recent election, a party which as Anduhrati Roy described so well in her essay about the Gujerat pogrom, had sought to manage the ‘dangerous gap’ with a mixture of neo-liberalism and Hindu nationalism. However chimerical the promises of the Congress Party might be, the election did allow the poor at least to say No to the gap and the way it was being managed.
The poor of Britain and Europe know the present importance of China in particular, life would be that much harder without its prices, a pair of jeans for a fiver, or toys for a quid. Its coming importance was highlighted a hundred years ago in J.A. Hobson’s Imperialsm unfairly famous only for being used and misused by Lenin. “China seems to offer a unique opportunity to the Western business man. A population…endowed with an extraordinary capacity of steady labour, with great intelligence and ingenuity, inured to a low standard of material comfort…Few Europeans even profess to know the Chinese…the only important fact upon which there is universal agreement is that the Chinese of all the ‘lower races’ most adaptable to purposes of industrial exploitation, yielding the largest surplus product of labour in proportion to their cost of keep.” The ignorance seems to have changed little, the Sinology department at Durham University is to close, and the UK government is to withdraw the small support it gave to those doing M.Phils in Chinese.
Hobson was in no position to anticipate a Communist Revolution or the developing class system of the present. He did however foresee those fears of this industrial development getting out of western control, manifested in notions of the ‘yellow peril’ which crop up throughout the 20th century to cause havoc in the minds of the leftist American writers Jack London and John dos Passos. “It is at least conceivable that China might so turn the tables upon the Western industrial nations, and, either by adopting their capital and organizers or, as is more probable, by substituting her own, might flood their markets with her cheaper manufactures, and refusing their imports in exchange might take her payment in liens upon their capital, reversing the earlier process of investment until she gradually obtained financial control over her quondam patrons and civilizers.” Such speculation belongs elsewhere, I don’t know for example how much Chinese capital is invested in US Treasury bonds, but presumably it figures largely in the thinking of professional Western geo-politics, militarized geo-politics. In their considerations presumably, oil figures a great deal. China’s ‘industrial revolution’ depends on it. Last year alone its oil consumption rose by 10%, along with what The Times (11/6/04) calls ‘rampant demand’ from not just China, but India and Brazil too, countries ‘continuing to guzzle world supply’. Guzzle! It may well be that the spread of US military bases across the oil-producing world is a product of those considerations.
At the same time Hobson raises another possibility, that “the increase of wealth which this new industrialism would bring… (might) … go to the endowment of a new powerful capitalist caste in China itself, who following the Western lines would ally themselves with imperialist politics in order to protect their vested interests.” The present reality would seem to be a mixture of these possibilities which the fabled dialectical powers of the Chinese Communist Party, with its schooling in primary contradictions and secondary contradictions, may be especially equipped to handle. Hobson as always in the book is concerned about its impact on class political and economic dynamics in Western Europe itself. He talks of how as it “became dependent economically upon China…the maintenance of that joint imperial control would…react upon Western politics, subordinating all movements of domestic reform to the need of maintaining Empires and checking the forces of democracy.” At the present time it is rather ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘terrorism’ which are filling this role, but Hobson also anticipates less dramatically, the way in which the China as it is now, might have a similar impact in checking the forces of democracy: “the pressure of working class movements in politics and industry in the West can be met by a flood of China goods, so as to keep down wages…it is conceivable that the powerful industrial and financial classes of the West, in order better to keep the economic and political mastery…may insist upon the free importation of yellow labour for domestic and industrial service in the West. This is a weapon which they hold in reserve, should they need to use it in order to keep the populace in safe subjection.”
Hobson himself had seen the use of Chinese labour in the South African gold mines; in our ears he sounds melodramatic and unwarrantably sweeping. In our own time instead, his considerations seep into yet another round of the “Immigration Debate.” The disparity between the freedom of mobility for capital and non-freedom for labour is mentioned, if at all, and then forgotten as if there really are parallel worlds. Instead, the same yes-and-no’s go round the carousel. Yes we need some skilled workers; yes, we must rationally look a future demographics and who will be needed to do the work to pay our pensions; but at the same time watch out for deceitful refugees who are really economic migrants; watch out for the illegal immigrant. But not too hard. After the death of three Kurdish workers on a level crossing on their way to pick spring onions in the East of England, it was suddenly discovered there were 2000 Chinese in Kings Lynn as if they had never been see before. In Kings Lynn! Their deaths were more sordid in the banality of the accident than the thriller-like narrative of Rumanian ex-train workers fixing signals so that other migrants could leap on the Eurostar at obscure spots. The reality of the immigration debate is also more sordid. While the Third World is raided for trained nurses whose training was a cost to those countries, immigration fears are regularly rehearsed. The net result is that so many immigrants live in fear, and this fear is functional to capitalist economies in the present era as it has been before. Migrant workers in Fortress Europe, and especially illegally-entered migrants are far more likely to accept wages and conditions that are especially functional to its needs, and which in turn have a knock-on effect on wages and working conditions generally. Racist politicians and professional opinionists have their own grisly agenda, but these are functional to capitalist economies and their household names. The focus of these opinionists on ‘failed’ asylum seekers and more recently on a flood of Roma and other East Europeans gives the game away. The first group are not allowed to work and the latter, as EU citizens would be legal. Their spotlight is not on Kings Lynn, a national blindspot. ‘Policies that claim to exclude undocumented workers,’ says Stephen Castle, ‘may often really be about allowing them through side doors and back doors so that they can be readily exploited.’ Or, as he put it some 30 years ago, commenting on the repatriation demands of Enoch Powell and other racist politicians: ‘Paradoxically their value for capital lies in their very failure to achieve their declared aims.’
Within Fortress Europe, the UK in particular with its avowedly American-style non-regulation economic policies, this process is all too visible. It is the dirty secret of the UK’s economic success under New Labour. And they are proud of it, these shadow social democrats; the UK’s official trade and investment website boasts of it. “Total wage costs in the UK are among the lowest in Europe,” it says.” In the UK employees are used to working hard for their employers. In 2001 the average hours worked a week was 45.1 for males and 40.7 for females. The EU average was 40.9…UK law does not oblige employers to provide a written employment contract…Recruitment costs in the UK is low…The law governing conduct of employment agencies is less restrictive in the UK. The UK has the lowest corporation tax of any major industrialized country.” Gordon Brown, biographer of James Maxton, who had already suffered enough in his own lifetime from sneers at the rights of working people, continues to lecture the rest of Europe for being ‘over-regulated’. More recently Jack Straw has ‘defied Europe’ as the papers would have it, when in a speech to the CBI he promised that the UK would insist that the charter of fundamental rights created no “new rights under national law, so as not to upset the balance of Britain’s industrial relations policy,” that is the one established by previous Conservative governments. In Britain there is nowhere for the exploited to turn and almost no employers are prosecuted for using illegal migrants.
To the extent that media coverage of the horror of Morecambe Bay –people dying and knowing they were going to die in a strange place in the winter water of currents in the Irish Sea, too ignorant or frightened to phone- went beyond gangmasters as tough Scousers in stolen 4-Wheel drives, it focused on the power of supermarkets in the agricultural sector and their relation to those who do the harvesting, a harvest when there is no time for a festival when the operation is non-stop all year round. Migrant labour is up by 44% in the last 7 years. Much of it is ‘legal’ via seasonal agricultural schemes but of the 3-5000 ‘gangmasters’ who organize this at least 1000 are illegal and give no protection to their workers. But then ‘gangmasters’ are in effect employment agencies and these, the New Labour boast is, are least restricted in the UK.
Despite Morecambe and the after-the-event hand-wringing, nothing has changed. In September 2003 the House of Commons committee on the environment and food, chaired by Michael Jack MP, found that the agencies supposed to deal with ‘illegal gangmasters’ were making no real impact and set out the changes that would be needed. In mid-May 2004, a report by the same committee declared that the government had no clearer picture of the situation, and no strengthening of enforcement action against them. There had, it concluded, been “no evidence of any change in the government’s approach since last September. Indeed, in some respects, enforcement activity has diminished because of lack of resources.”
The beneficiaries of this, are the ‘household’ names of Tesco, Sainsbury and the rest, all taking advantage of this underclass of ‘the reserve army of labour’. Andrew Simms describes a situation where “Long chains of sub-contractors, commercial confidentiality and contractual obfuscation, allow household names to hide behind plausible denials…we have evolved a system better at hiding, or distancing cause from effect.” This at a time when New Labour has never stopped talking of responsibilities in return for rights, exchange value-business. Those who died at Morecambe are believed to have moved on from Kings Lynn, a downturn in all likelihood from the picking of root vegetables for a market dominated by the ‘high street’ supermarkets. And this has never been part of a bucolic life. A painting in the Tate, ‘Winter Work’ by Sir George Clausen shows the cold-pinched faces and bruised hands of such pickers near St Albans in 1880. In this line of work, technological innovations have been few and far between.
The distancing of cause from consequence, and the determination that this should remain so, the Not-Me-Guv cry of the rich, the powerful and their portraitists, appear in all their colour, in the Teeside Evening Gazette’s report on a fire at the Woo One factory in the Sovereign Business Park, Hartlepool at the beginning of April. It concluded that the factory was known because of the death Zhang Guo Hua after a 24 hour shift, but that the one newspaper report on this case had “stressed there was no evidence that Mr Zhang’s working conditions directly caused the haemorrhage.” The one that killed him. He had, it was reported been through the usual kind of work: cutting salads for Tesco suppliers in Sussex; fish-processing in Scotland; and packing flowers in Norfolk. Usual for whom? For a novelist keen to stress his experience of the gritty real world on the dust-jacket. In the ‘real world’, the usual kind of progression that might have lead Zhang Guo Hua to Morecambe. Instead it was to Hartlepool.
The Queen had opened the nearby Samsung plant in 1996. It has a global turnover of $33 billion. When it opened the local MP, Peter Mandleson wrote an article in praise of the company saying: “some have the impression that the success of the tiger economies is based on sweatshop labour. This is a false picture.” That sweatshop labour is exclusive to the ‘tiger economies’, that is the false picture. Zhang Guo Hua worked a 24 hour shift in Hartlepool. His decision of course, to do so, one can hear the Not-Me-Guv voice saying. A ubiquitous voice, prominent in a newspaper investigation into an outfit called Pertemps East Anglia Ltd which employed and exploited illegal migrant workers, when it heard from the spokespeople for Grampian Country Foods and Kerry Foods who supply Sainsburys. They had seen nothing heard nothing, none of them. Whatever it is, it’s deniable. Woo One, the company Zhang Guo Hua worked for, was a ‘feeder’ factory for Samsung, its practices its own, as Samsung, a large-scale multinational would have it. Zhang Guo Hua spent his last 24 hours stamping the word SAMSUNG on to plastic casings either for microwave oven doors or computer monitors, on his feet throughout. When he collapsed and went to hospital it was under another name. It was only when he was dead that a friend gave Zhang’s real passport. So that even though he was cremated without an Inquest, it was in his own name.
An ex-worker at Woo One said that the minimum working week was 72 hours and the minimum shift 12 hours. Its managing director, Keith Boynton, agreed that English workers were not required to work these hours, but it wasn’t him guv, the Chinese workers were technically employed by an outfit called Thames Oriental Manpower Management with offices in New Malden Surrey close to Samsung’s corporate HQ. Thames Oriental Manpower Management. A name that could only have been dreamed up by its proprietor a Mr Lin, not a tough scouser in ripped jeans but a man who had been granted asylum claiming, claiming that is, that he was a North Korean Refugee. Mr Boynton of Woo One said that “What he (Mr Lin) pays the workers is up to him.” Mr Lin, it was reported had also taken control from Woo One of the nearby three to a room set of dormitories on nearby Stockton Road and presumably, because he is now the villain, charged what he liked.
At this time Samsung boasted of record UK factory profits though “unit cost reduction.” To get some idea of the process whereby this might happen, two pieces of Marx’s structural economic analysis come to mind. He had for one thing de-constructed the notion of productivity long before the era of productivity deals. The very notion is one which exactly distances cause from consequence, or rather, and all the more modern for that, muddies the cause. ‘Productivity’ smears together productiveness of labour, that is the improved technology which allows for greater production; intensity of labour, which is how hard people work per hour (and here much of the improved technology simply increases the intensity of labour); and the length of the working day. These latter two factors are characteristic of “primitive accumulation” and boy, was that going on in Samsung’s Hartlepool circus. Marx’s misnamed Equalization of Profit Law describes the mechanism whereby this works. The surplus or profit engendered by companies like Woo One, does not all go to them; the size of Samsung, the concentration of capital involved, and its power in relation to both its suppliers and marketing, means that it takes a lion share of what has truly been accumulated in primitive fashion by small dependent suppliers. This is not some one-off phenomena, one study shows Toyota having some 47,000 small firms working for it in a hierarchic structure, with most of those in the lowest layer from where the surpluses of ‘primitive accumulation’ are mostly passed up the chain to where transnational corporations like Toyota benefit from that mystery called ‘value-added’.
When the story emerged in The Guardian 13th January 2004, local MP Peter Mandleson said that he had “written to Samsung about allegations made against Woo One in this tragic case.” The question is then, did he ever receive a reply because two days afterwards Samsung announced, out of the blue it was said, that it was closing the factory involved, the Wynyard in Billingham. It blamed the high level of wages in NE England and said it was re-locating to Slovakia where wages stood at one pound an hour. To which address did Mr Mandleson write. Was it passed on by a Post Office re-direction instruction. Has he received a reply? It seems unlikely given that Samsung’s decision can hardly have been spur of the moment, or that a meeting with Woo One would have been a priority in thr two days remaining. It transpired that Woo One themselves had already started to make its own move in the direction of Slovakia, and indeed announced some three weeks later that it was to close its computer casings plant in Hartlepool. On the news of Samsung’s departure which occasioned some low-level outrage about government subsidies it had received, Mr Mandleson, his letter still in the post somewhere, said that the price of their product had fallen worldwide, and that was “the reason for its closure.” Prime Minister Tony Blair said he deeply regretted the loss of jobs involved but that “It is part of the world economy we live in.”
There is of course much truth in what he says, but there is a complacency to that same voice which talks so much of our responsibilities that grates. It does indeed grate. If wages in Slovakia are one pound an hour, in China they are likely to be fifty pence, yet there is a need felt in the ‘First World’ to maintain low-cost mass production within its own frontiers even while its investor class shifts production to such countries. There is for one thing a structural limit to how many lawyers, journalists, IT specialists and bankers are required even in the First World, whatever might be said about education, education, education, while at the same time an increasing reluctance to cushion the circumstances of the excluded population. For another there is a fear at the psychic level of political economy that if so much industrial production is shifted to different parts of Asia, it will somehow weaken the West, will be a symptom of vague and elitist notions of the decadence of the poor. More specifically than notions of decadence, there is a need for cheap labour in the First World, within its own frontiers, ‘for it means that the South cannot extract monopoly rents for its cheap labour and bad working conditions’ as Biel puts it. (Biel: The New Imperialism: Zed Books). There are sweatshops in London and Los Anegeles even while automatic looms are capable of weaving 760 metres of denim per minute. As Hobson suggested, and the irony stands out in neon, this First World low-cost production, requires migrant workers, workers made fearful by an unscrupulous media and political class.
Migrant workers are also essential to low-cost China and its ‘economic miracle’. The numbers are hard to establish, 80 million is one estimate, 94 another, of recent migrants from the Chinese countryside, many of whom are also ‘illegal’. Many Chinese cities require residency permits while it is these ‘peasants’ who do the jobs that Beijingers for example won’t do themselves. And, just like anywhere else, for Albanians in Greece for example, they are accused of being thieves and dirty, while also exerting a downward pressure on local wages. Should there be a shrinkage of economic growth at a global level, these Chinese migrant workers will be the first to lose their jobs. For one thing 90% of them work without contracts, according to Li Jianfei, a law professor at the People’s University. Even the state-run Trade Union estimates that they are owed over 100 million yen in back wages, but a campaign for repayment is for those with contracts only. Much of this is in the booming construction sector, where non-paying sub-contractors blame large companies underpaying them, the Law of Equalization of Profit in crude form.
In more classical form it is inherent in the position of the coal mining industry. China’s increasing oil dependence is well known, it is also the world’s largest coal producer, consuming 31% of total global production. Worries about a crippling energy crunch surfaced unusually in Wen Jiabo’s March 5th address to the National People Congress. Chinese companies are making sizeable profits on legal and illegal mining operations, but at prices to industry which mean the real rates of profit of the consuming industries, often foreign-financed, are even greater. On top of this central government’s pressure for more output. At the same time, the industry has an appalling safety record, around 7000 miners were killed in 2003. There are promises of more inspectorates and the closing of illegal mines but in the face of this ‘energy crunch’ this is likely to remain rhetorical. Safety investment is far less than the announced allocation. The grim reality is that with the retrenching of state-owned industries with the loss of benefits and pensions, the unemployed and the rural poor have entered the industry in huge numbers and are willing to work for cash in appalling and unsafe conditions, often assisting coal mine owners in avoiding safety procedures to ensure continued employment, as the China Labour Bulletin puts it. The death of one man in Hartlepool is hardly on the same scale, but the pressures for “not making a fuss” are similar.
The wishful thinking of the new Communist Party leadership about reversing the dynamics of inequality, may be a more cynical rhetoric since it does not prevent them from maintaining a hard line against any independent worker protests over pay and conditions. A strike at the part Taiwanese financed Xinxiong Shoe Factory in Dongguan city in April of this year has resulted in several arrests. The straw that broke the camel’s back in this instance was a management decision to shift overtime shifts from the weekend to weekdays which meant a wage cut, this when the majority of line workers were already being denied pension and medical insurance. Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang are both serving long prison sentences as a result of being involved in the Ferro-Alloy strike in Liaoyang province where 1600 workers are still without retrenchment compensation. In Hubei province 6 workers have been arrested and are awaiting trial on charges of “disturbing social order” after a peaceful demonstration at the Tieshu factory this after 15 months of peaceful campaigning to recover more than 200 million Yuan in back wages, redundancy payments, workers shares and other moneys owed them by the bankrupt factory’s management.
None of these realities appear in a piece of psychologizing in The Guardian of 20th February 2004 which concentrated one of those who drowned at Morecambe, Yu Hui. He is portrayed by James Meek and Jonathan Watts as some kind of inadequate who had failed to do well in the new China in sharp contrast to his father and younger brother. He willingly put his family in debt and broke the law, it said, not just because he wanted a better life for his children but “because he wanted to prove himself to his family and peers.”
Other workers from the Tieshu factory have been sentenced to terms up to 21 months of “re-education through labour” a punishment which bypasses the criminal justice system. We do not know the extent of prison labour in China but it too is a component of holding down general wages and conditions. There is nothing to get smug about, prison labour in the UK is being organized in a much more serious manner than before. The Woolworth’s type-chain in the north of England, Wilkinsons, is highly dependent on it for its products. A recent piece in The Economist (6th May) goes further, saying “Hard-working immigrants transform the prison system”. It describes how Wormwood Scrubs (where a regime of extreme and racist staff violence is still being investigated) is full of cocaine drug mules from South America and how the prison runs production lines for airline headsets and aluminium windows. The best jobs, it says, pay 25-40 pounds a week “depending on a prisoner’s place on the ladder of privilege (as in all prisons, inmates are paid more for the same job if they behave themselves)”. It goes on to say that “it is serious money for a third-worlder…so a steady stream of remittances flows from Wormwood Scrubs to poor countries.” A grotesque conclusion might be that the poor victims of Morecambe Bay would have been better off there.
After the effective and international demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the unity displayed there, the unity that was most unsettling to the global investor class, was quickly faced with the snide and sneer of professional opinionists. The many American trade unionists present, they said had no global consciousness, they were just there to protect their jobs. Their demands for basic standards and rights for workers in the poor world, were just a subtle form of protectionism, protecting their privileges. It is true that the Clinton administration would do almost anything to secure free trade deals in American interests, and also that Third World voices have been raised to say that such demands for minimum standards and conditions are aimed at cutting off the one way in which they can develop economically, that they do protect a ‘monopoly rent’ on cheap labour, but it is reasonable to ask in return who and what these voices represent. The “Third World’ is not some homogenous space and the class divisions in India and China are clear to see, and increasing inequality within countries rich and poor, is a global reality.
It is such a reality which gives us a nominally social-democratic and a nominally communist government, both spurning any effective protection of workers. Instead then, why not support for those working for better wages, conditions and respect in China for example. Lawyers like Cho Li Tai and the Centre for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, Beijing University; peasant actvists like Li Changping; and most of all those imprisoned for demanding basic rights. For this to be in the spirit of that unity shown at Seattle to mean anything in the UK, a start would be support for the Private Members Bill of Jim Sheridan MP and backed by the TGWU, for a thorough registration of ‘gangmasters’. If it were to succeed it would at least remove one part of the government’s boasts of its cheap labour and lightly regulated employment agencies and go a step beyond cursory hand-wringing.
JA Hobson’s Imperialsm first published by Allen& Unwin 1902. Reprints by them up to 1947 and then further reprints by Routledge. Now available online via www.jamesrmaclean.com