It truly saddens me to think I might be partly responsible for at least thirteen (13) people—people that I never knew—deciding to bring their lives to a premature end. However, the reality is that just might be the case. Maybe I did have something to do with it. No…I take that back. I most certainly had something to do with it. At Foxconn, a Chinese electronics factory that produces components for the likes of Dell, HP, and Apple, there have been thirteen reported cases of suicide since January. Why did these individuals decide that, in a choice between life and death, death seemed to be the better, more enticing alternative? Is this a case of contagious suicide? In certain situations, suicides have become a form of a social statement, bringing awareness about and opposing social injustices. In other cases, they have been the result of psychological or physiological disease. Some cultures view suicide as cowardly, while others see it as courageous. Whatever the case, thirteen people decided that ending their lives was a better alternative than continuing on the path they were taking (or perhaps, the only path they were given).
According to an article that appeared the New York Times, the harsh work environment, a sense of loneliness, and working 286 hours per month contributed heavily to a feeling of utter despair—all in order to earn the equivalent of $1 per hour. This means these factory workers are literally spending more than half of their days on the job, often with no breaks or lunches, while making next to nothing.
How I am responsible for the despair these 18 – 24 year old factory workers, their families, and others in similar situations feel? It’s easy to blame the huge multinational corporations that outsource their production to factories like this. After all, they do pay the salaries. They do make the harsh demands that must be met by the workers. They do seek out the cheapest quality labor they can find in order to ensure profitability. But alas, the constant consumer demand for faster, stronger, better, and CHEAPER products drives these companies to cut corners wherever they can. Investors are increasingly demanding quicker and larger returns on their investments. Although some are beginning to take a more holistic and socially conscious approach to their investing, many are still in it for the biggest and fastest gains possible by any means necessary. The pressures created by their constituents, while not the only factors (exorbitant executive salaries, lavish retreats, etc., are among others), are contributing to the distress being placed on these factory workers.
Two expenses that significantly increase costs are the manufacture and customer service associated with products and services. Ironically, these are often two things that consumers complain about the most. We joke about how everything is “made in China.” We complain about how we “always get somebody with an accent I can’t understand” when we call customer service. If, however, we want quality in those two areas we have to be willing to pay for them. We cannot expect Americans to answer the phone when we aren’t willing to pay American wages. This is partially the result of a domino effect, however, as in order to pay for this quality, however, we need to earn wages that allow us to do so. In order to make the wages that allow us to do so, we must have the skills required to do the work. The problems are numerous, but not insurmountable. We have to understand what role we play in the global landscape so can develop steps to make positive changes.
Sometimes I walk into a store like Target and walk by the $1 section, pick up an item and think:
That’s crazy. We were able to mine the raw materials, refine those materials, ship them to China, pay the salaries of everybody from the executive team to the designers to the factory workers, label it, package it, ship it BACK to the States, and pay the courier, the inventory people, and the salaries of everybody in the store…all for under $1 per unit – for a pen.
Just under $1 is the maximum we’re willing to spend on that pen – the same amount the Chinese factory worker may have made in that hour I spent walking around the store. Is it worth it?