In Gok Wan’s 2012 UK TV-documentary ‘Made in China‘ the half-Chinese fashionista flies to China to investigate how factories over there operate and how they treat their workers. But the problem is that he achieves almost nothing by entering these factories; on one occasion he arranges a meeting with a group of three Chinese sisters who work at an underwear factory. The press manager of the entire factory, along with an ‘official photographer’ and other individuals from the company, manage to turn up before Gok has questioned them. It becomes pretty clear that if a Westerner wants to find out about the health and welfare of the millions of people that provide the world with half of the content of our houses, it just ain’t going to happen, and there isn’t much that we can do about that.
In an email written by Yang Wenxu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, it is clear that Chinese governmental authority has almost complete control of how media represents the health and rights of Chinese workers:
“Chinese government attaches great importance to the protection of legitimate rights of workers,” he said, further claiming that Beijing “has made great efforts, including formulating relevant rules and regulations, as well as taking concrete measures, to implement labor-protection laws.”
Even social media shows the control of Chinese authorities across the media; almost all the pages that can be found on Facebook devoted to Chinese workers’ unions show evidence that even parties that appear to be working for the greater good of workers take directions from the Communist government e.g. the’ Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party’ page only has 54 likes, presumably from Western users, and these results filter down through numerous other examples.
In reality, “the problem does not lie with China’s safety regulations”, says Michelle Phillips at The Washington Times, but at a local level, in the actual factories and on labour sites, there isn’t much attention to these regulations. “There are some good laws on the books, but implementation has been spotty and haphazard at best,” said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York.
A problem that Western media has revealed is that even if Western companies like Apple are pushed to address health concerns in the
factories where their products are made, often the companies show that, yes, Western companies are trying to improve conditions, but there isn’t much they are able to do to change these conditions on a consistent local level. As shown by Tim Cook in this article, Apple is trying to make changes to the welfare of Apple manufacturers but they can only do so much; it is up to Chinese employers to keep up a consistent standard and often this is not maintained. However, an example of the evasion of the truth of both the physical and mental health of Chinese workers that I’ve found comes from Steve Jobs himself, in an interview from a 2010 conference. Not only does he try to sugarcoat the conditions of workers there by placing emphasis on the ‘restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals‘ provided on site, but when asked about the 13 suicides that have happened at Foxconn factories that manufacture Apple products, he dilutes the importance of these occurrences.
So it seems that we’ve got a deadlock here; Western media is trying to gather information about the plight of Chinese workers and campaign for better treatment of workers and closer attention to their rights, but Chinese authority often controls what can and cannot be done at the root of the problem, and what is publicised.