How much work is too much?

28 days of work a month. That’s the average number of days a month that factory laborers work in three facilities I visited last week in China. Daily schedules vary between the hours of 8:30am and 9:30pm, but basically boil down to 60-80 hours a week with a few days off at the end of the month after payday. Depending on their level of skill, laborers (as opposed to supervisors) make between 2500 and 4000 RMB/month ($367-$587 on current exchange).


Are these sweatshops?

In the sense that the factories in the south of China were extremely hot and I was sweating while I was on the production floor, “Yes.” To the minds of most Americans, I would assume, “Yes,” as well, for less literal reasons. It doesn’t sound like something most of us would sign up for or wish upon others. To many, I’m sure it sounds abusive and possibly illegal. But then I think most people would reflect that they know an ambitious person who works 60-80 hour weeks, with rare days off, maybe a banker, consultant, entrepreneur or single mother… but then again for vastly different compensation. 

I did not perform Thayer Certified audits at these factories, but I would bet heavily that the labor performed there is purely voluntarily and the workers, if asked, wouldn’t see anything unfair or criminal about their working conditions. In the words of one factory owner, this is simply “the market price” for factory labor, where the lowest wage per unit production meets workers’ willingness to work. I suppose a case could be made for entrapment in rural factories, but for the most part, if workers get tired or aren’t making enough money, they just don’t come back after a holiday or payday.

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In fact, from this factory owner’s perspective (and probably more than a few of the migrant workers themselves) factory jobs represent an opportunity rather than a dead end. Over time, there are avenues to earn supervisory positions with a middle-class salary and/or to save enough money to buy a home or start a business. how much workcrop

What’s exploitation and what’s working hard to get ahead?

I have mixed feelings when I tour and engage with factories like these. On the one hand, I feel sad for anyone who needs to sacrifice that much of their life to get ahead (or just make a living). On the other hand, whereas I, and most of you reading this, can count a number of things we would rather do (and can afford to do) on the weekends rather than work, I think most Chinese factory workers approach their jobs with a fatalistic focus, which is to make as much money as possible in a given time. To them weekends and evenings off (with no pay) or improvements in material conditions in factory dorms or offices (in place of the salary that would be displaced to create these comforts) don’t make much sense.

I would be very interested if you think this sounds like a “fair” working environment that would feel comfortable purchasing goods from.

Here’s two quick questions to see what you think.

I’ll publish the results next week.

Thank you!

Joe Burnett

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