When my migrant grandparents moved to Australia in the 1950s, they worked 7-day weeks, 12 hours per day, at least. My grandmother worked in a textile factory ran by a wealthy family of earlier migrants. My grandfather worked wherever there was work, often in the western outback for months at a time.
From the stories they told me, it wasn’t fun. Noise, sweat, long hours, boredom from the repetive work. My grandmother did mention several tough, unfair and stingy (at least in the salary department) bosses. But, they were happy there was work, and they gladly took it. Overtime, they built up their savings and they didn’t have to worry about all that, but they continued living a simple and self-sustainable life. They didn’t need much; some food on their table and a roof over their heads.
The world had just changed back then. It was the aftermath of the 2nd World War and of a civil war back home. Things were uncertain, but there was relative peace, relative safety, and plenty of work. In Australia, that is, because other parts of the world were either still devastated or dealing with other deadly and destructive wars and conflicts. The old country had yet to recover, and the United States and the Soviet Union dominated world politics. But my grandparents were simple people, they instinctively knew that given work and safety, every thing would magically “work out”. They didn’t expect much help, other than the aforementioned basics, from their bosses or their government or some other nebulous but powerful organisation. If they wanted a better life, it would have to be because of their hard work.
Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves amidst a tectonic change in the way that the world works. Europe is in crisis (really, nothing new here), regional wars raging, dictators waging their fists in rage, religious fundamentalism as powerful as back in the good old middle ages in many parts of the world, conspiracy theories “explaining” every new development in the economy or politics as the implementation of a plan by certain powerful elites (usual, bankers) to take over the world and turn humans into some sort of battery, and, gasp, the emergence of China and the Far East as the new economic center of gravity.
This essay was triggered by a discussion with a few friends about the apparent unfairness of the migration of manufacturing work to the East, and especially to China, which was itself triggered by this NY Times article. In this discussion, all of the above points were raised as if they are facts perfectly connected with each other. It all accumulates to this: it is in the interest of multinational organisations to reduce our standard of living, and we are powerless to do anything about it.
It started when a friend, disturbed by the ruthlessness of a certain multinational company, complained:
How do you reconcile the fact that workers making iphones for $17 per day, sleeping in the factory, a company that makes 75b profit saying that it has no responsibility to employ people in the US because of inflexible practices!
At first look, this really does seem unfair. Getting $17 per day for my work would not be enough for my train ticket to work. A rich company could certainly pay its workforce a little bit more. And the same company should certainly do more of its business in a particular country of the world as an indication of its loyalty and patriotism.
But on second examination, there are so many wrong assumptions in this statement that are so easy to overlook when you emotionally glance at it and not make the effort to look at the facts. For example, when I lived in Hong Kong for a short period of time back in 2006, sharing a dormitory room with two Chinese students, I would spent around $5 per day on three meals at the university canteen, and around $1 on the room. And Hong Kong is expensive compared to places like Schenzen where most of this company’s products are made. It seems like $17 per day is good money for an unskilled 18yo worker from a village in central China. I doubt my grandparents were getting much more than that working in Australia as unskilled workers in the 1950s.
Then, the fact that a company is filthy rich, does not require this company to pay more unless it really has to. Securing plenty of unskilled labour in China does not seem to be a probl
em, therefore such labour can be secured for a very small price. Simple economics show that prices of any commodity, including labour, find an equilibrium with depends on the ratio of demand vs supply. This does not include the amount of cash in the buyer’s bank account.
Finally, it is common sense that organisations, just like people, will try to maximise their potential even if that means leaving the shores of their home country. My ancestors did that many times by migrating in 5 different countries around the world. And all of them are still deeply patriotic about their home country. Prosperity and patriotism does not seem to mutually exclude each other when it comes to people making important personal decisions; why should large organisations, which by definition are multinational due to the composition of their workforce, be any different?
In any case, the friend’s argument seemed to be mainly targeting the unfairness of the corporation against “exploited workers”. A little bit like my grandparents sixty years ago. But look at what happened to my grandparents after they gratefully took that money, put their head down, and worked to their limits: many of their descendants are now living in an affluent society expecting to be paid handsomely for working as little as possible so they can live a comfortable and secure life, free of worries about what tomorrow brings. These decedents are also fortunate enough to be able to show signs of sympathy for others who, like their grandparents, are today working in similar (a relative term since no Shenzen equivalent has ever existed in Australia) conditions to build their own future so that their own descendants can one day live the lives we live.
It is also easily forgotten that it is because of people like my grandparents that the average modern latte-sipping 40-year old expects that their employer is obliged to pay them to drink lattes and engage in philosophical discussions about fair and unfair trade practices or evil and good enterprises, pay their mortgages and get their kids through private schools. My grandparents, with all their hard work, created generations of people that expect that things will always be as they used to be, safe, wealthy, easy.
But my friend countered:
What goes around comes around, lets see what you do when wage deflation hits your front door….while the people asking you to cut eat more than ever!
A common defence of people without strong arguments to support their position is the claim that enough time, their position will be justified. They believe that 15,000 years of “civilised” human history and society haven’t got anything to teach us about modern affairs, and that this present argument of the evil of capitalism and unfairness of the changing global economic dynamics cannot be analysed or settled with the data available now. Loosing our hard earned privileges due to others working longer and harder is so unfair. They are masking their own fear of loss of the quality of life given to them by their ancestors by pretending to worry about the quality of life of those workers in far away places who aspire to a better life.
The fact is that when you knock on other people’s doors for a wage, you have to get what you are given; if you don’t like it and you have the options or the conviction you can refuse the terms and move on. Rules and laws that protect workers work well when everything is going well, but as soon as a society comes under strain, these rule break down. They have to break down because they are not sustainable, they are not natural; they are designed and imposed to work under certain conditions, like all laws are. Change those conditions, and the rules under which a society operates have to change.
If you want to eat like never before, as the bosses of multinationals or large business apparently do, go build your own Apple (if you dare to do it).
Of course, most people would never do what Googler #13 (Steve Schimmel) did, because that would be not cool, or safe, or comfortable, or even possible (“they” will not allow it) to do. Working like Alex Payne (Twitter)? Or learning something new (Tracy Osborne)? No! The world may be changing but hard-earned habits don’t. For most, the best thing to do is to stay put and complain about it instead on steaming ahead as the times demand. Staying put is so much easier that, say, innovating your way out of a tectonic change in world order! For respectable latte-sippers everywhere, complaining is so much more dignified, in case a wealthy benefactor or an enlightened government hears their plea. For some that can, complaining of the changes in the world order manifest also by extremes such as striking, which involves unilaterally cutting down services by abusing a position of power, blocking economic activities for others, demanding that the evil capitalists and/or the rest of the society looks after them, all while they sip cafe-lattes and watching the cricket.
We have to understand that the people that pay our wages don’t have an obligation to look after our well being unless it makes economical sense. Reality does hurt. We have to take responsibility for our own path in life just like my grandparents did sixty years ago… Like the Schimmels, Paynes and Osbornes do today.
The world is changing and is, as always, full of opportunities for those that are brave (and crazy) enough to chase them.
For the rest of us, we can complain about the unfairness of it all.