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Blaine Brubaker
Dr. Fran Leap
SLA 150 Faith, Religion, and Society
3 December 2015

Sweatshop Despair: Poor Working Conditions in China


As a society based on consumerism, people are constantly buying things. These
things range from items needed for everyday life, such as clothing and furniture, to items
for enjoyment, such as video games and cell phones. However, people in factories
normally assemble these items before they are sold to the public. Outsourcing has
become a popular method of labor for many major factories with China being the one of
the biggest suppliers in the world of manufactured items. In countries such as China,
labor unions are not well regulated and most of the time, workers rights are horribly
violated and workers are mistreated and abused. With the help and urging of major
companies, China must open their eyes to the poor working conditions of the migrant
worker and reform their labor laws, providing safety and equal pay.
Reebok and Apple are two examples of companies who are using Chinese
factories with migrant workers as employees. Reebok is known for having a good
reputation with human rights efforts and often fights against sweatshop abuses (Yu 515).
One of the companies Reebok uses to make their shoes is Fortune Sports, a sports shoes
manufacturer. The workforce for Fortune Sports factories are over 90% unmarried,
migrant women from rural areas of China and over 95% of employees are between the
ages of eighteen and thirty (517). Before Reebok upheld Fortune Sports to reformed labor
practices in 1997, many labor rights violations were committed, such as long overtime
hours, lack of compensation for overtime hours, health and safety problems, and
insufficient state protection and weak union representation (518). Reebok has tried to
intervene and help workers in these situations; however, Fortune Sports ends up having
the last say in the matter, doing what they need so both profits and productivity go up.
Apple has also had the same issues arise with their companies with migrant
workers. Undercover reporters from the BBC, posed as employees, went into Pegatron, a
Chinese factory used to make Apple products in 2014. Many workers were found falling
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asleep while working due to exhaustion and stress of working twelve hour shifts. One
reporter worked a 16-hour shift, reporting when they returned to the dormitories, they did
not want to move or eat and sadly, could not sleep due to the amount of stress. Apple
denied the claims, stating, We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to
ensure fair and safe working conditions (Apple).
In Catholic social teaching, one of the main nine themes concerns the dignity of
work, rights of workers, and support for labor unions. According to Thomas Massaro,
labor unions are an important part of balance in the economy. Without labor unions,
workers would be at the mercy of their employers (140). China has laws for labor unions
to be in place. However, in certain factories, such as the ones used by Apple and Reebok,
the labor unions are more for show. The government is not stepping in to help these
workers, and this allows Chinese migrant workers to be taken advantage by their
employers in the factories. Laborem Exercens, a document written by Pope John Paul II,
also touches on the rights of the worker and how harmful this type of situation can be. As
stated in Laborem Exercens, All this pleads in favor of the moral obligation to link
industriousness as a virtue with the social order of work, which will enable man to
become, in work, "more a human being" and not be degraded by it not only because of
the wearing out of his physical strengthbut especially through damage to the dignity
and subjectivity that are proper to him (Laborem Exercens). Working ten to twelve
hour days with minimal breaks in the United States would be a crime according to the
rights of workers established by labor unions and laws by the United States government.
In China, this should be the case. Until the Chinese government makes a stand against big
businesses, the thoughts and rights of the worker will continue to be ignored.
Options for the poor and vulnerable and the dignity of every person and human
rights are other themes of Catholic social teaching that stand out with the issue of
Chinese migrant workers. Out of a population of 1.3 billion people, almost 144 million
people are migrant workers. Just as it was found in the factories of Fortune Sports, most
of these migrant workers are unmarried, young adult females coming from the
impoverished countryside (Chan 33). These workers are then placed into factories such as
Pegatron, and are surrounded by harmful chemicals. Benzene, one of the harmful
chemicals, is one frequently used in cleaning electronics and finishing varnish on
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products. In many western countries, benzene has been banned as it has been proven a
carcinogen, linked to bone marrow issues, and birth defect. China is one of the only
countries that still allows the use of this chemical and now, benzene is the most common
cause of occupational chemical poisoning in China (Toxic Chemicals 5). Yes, job
opportunities for migrant workers make it easier for them to support their families in the
poor countryside of China. With chemicals such as benzene being used, the health bills
and treatments take away all the money these migrant workers have earned to send back
to their families. Migrant workers then have to start all over again. Pope Paul IV wrote in
his document, Populorum Progressio, Less human conditions: the lack of material
necessities for those who are without the minimum essential for life, the moral
deficiencies of those who are mutilated by selfishness. Less human conditions:
oppressive social structures, whether due to the abuses of ownership or to the abuses of
power, to the exploitation of workers or to unjust transactions ("Populorum Progressio").
Humans should not be placed in situations where their health and the health of others is
put on the line. Without basic human rights in the workplace, Chinese migrant workers
will continue to suffer.
These poor working conditions in China can be applied to the triangle of justice, a
pictorial demonstrating how justice works within society. One side begins with
interpersonal communication and justice. For this issue, this would be the migrant
worker. The migrant worker is the basis working towards a common good: working to
make products while receiving pay and a room in return. On the other two sides of the
triangle, there is social justice and distributive justice. For the worker, social justice is
given through their ability to work for the factory. By giving their ability to work, the
worker can start working towards the idea of a common good. However, the employer
must give back as an agent of distributive justice. This is where the triangle of justice gets
distorted. The employers are giving the workers pay and a room, but it is not enough to
ensure a living wage or healthy working conditions. To complete the triangle, both social
justice and distributive justice need to come to a common good. If one side of the triangle
does not do their part, then the justice system becomes corrupt as one can see with the
situation in China.
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Catholicism is not the only religion that speaks up about the rights of the worker
and labor unions. In Judaism, the Talmud contains writings concerning contract law. It
states workers are entitled to special protection and should always have an advantage
over their employer (Perry 4). If Judaism were to focus on the poor working conditions in
China, there would be an outrage due to the lack of protection of the worker. Workers are
put in positions where their health is compromised for labor, and employers do it in the
name of productivity. Islam also has the same thoughts on this subject. Prophet
Muhammad has been noted as saying, Your servants/workers are your brothers whom
God the most High has placed under your authority. Therefore, a person who has a
brother under his authority, should feed him out of that which he eats himself and should
dress him with the same kind of clothes which he wears himself; he should not assign
work to him which is beyond his capacity, and if you do so, then help him in his work
(Islam Workers Rights). This passage shows that even thousands of years ago, workers
were treated fairly and given a fair workload.
With poor working conditions and unfair treatment of workers, there is
corruption within the Chinese labor system. To fix this, it is up to the Chinese
government to take a firm stand against these factories who are working their employees
to the bone. However, by doing this, the Chinese government puts their own economical
development at risk. Countries around the world, especially those with a background in
Catholic social teaching, need to stand up in the support of the migrant worker in China.
As it is shown in Catholicism, religion teaches the ethics of workers rights. All that is left
are for those who support these moral to take a stand in support of their fellow man.
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Works Cited

"Apple 'failing to Protect Chinese Factory Workers' - BBC News." BBC News. 18 Dec.
2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Chan, Jenny. "Chinese Migrant Workers in Action: Bringing Wal-Mart to Global
Corporate Responsibility." Social Policy 36.1 (2005): 32-36. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
"Islam Workers Rights." Interfaith Worker Justice. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
"Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981) | John Paul II." Laborem Exercens (14
September 1981) | John Paul II. 14 Sept. 1981. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Massaro, Thomas. Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. Franklin, Wis.:
Sheed & Ward, 2000. Print.
Perry, Michael. "Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition." Jewish Labor Committee, 1993.
Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
"Populorum Progressio." Catholic Social Teaching Major Documents. Catholic Charities
of St. Paul and Minneapolis, 26 Mar. 1967. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
"Toxic Chemicals Killing Chinese Workers: A Critical Analysis and Case Studies of
Benzene Poisoning in China." Issuu. Labour Action China, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 27
Nov. 2015.
Yu, Xiaomin. "Impacts of Corporate Code of Conduct on Labor Standards: A Case Study
of Reeboks Athletic Footwear Supplier Factory in China." J Bus Ethics Journal
of Business Ethics (2007): 513-29. Web.