Global Issues

Listening to China’s workers: Leslie T. Chang at TEDGlobal2012

Leslie T. Chang

Think about the things you use every day — and about the people who make them. Leslie Chang is a journalist who has spent years in China to talk to the workers who make the products we use, voices that have been missing from much of the discussion about labor, global markets and exploitation.

“This is a conversation that often brings up a lot of guilt,” she says. A common part of the conversation is the question, “What’s wrong with a world where a person working on an iPhone assembly line can’t afford to buy one?” Chinese factories are equated with guilt over our compulsive overconsumption. But, says Chang, this is misleading and inaccurate.

In fact, Chang says, it’s actually rather self-centered to imagine that we’ve willed into being this world where people work in horrible conditions to make us our things. Workers themselves don’t just go into factories to feed the world’s needs, they do it to earn money, to learn new skills and to see the world. What’s missing in all of our conversations is the voices of the workers themselves. She quotes from some of the workers she spoke with, all women 18 or 19 years old:

  • “My mother tells me to go home and get married, but if I get married now I can only marry an ordinary worker, so I’m not in a hurry.”
  • “When I went home for the New Year, everyone said I had changed. They asked me what have you done to change so much. I said I studied and worked hard. If you tell them more they won’t understand.”
  • “Now after I get off work, I study English because in the future our customers won’t just be Chinese, so we need to learn more languages.”

She went to the city of Dongguan, talking to those workers. They talked about many things, but barely mentioned were the living conditions, which were still better than their home villages. Interestingly, the workers never talked about the products they made, and couldn’t describe what they were. Marx saw this as the tragedy of the workers, the alienation from the products they fashion — unlike artisans of the past.

“But just because a worker spends her time making a piece of something, does not mean that she becomes a piece of something.” The workers, Chang found, don’t care about the products they make. They care about other things: how much can they save, how long should they stay, how much they need to get married, to buy a car or apartment, or to put a child through school.

The workers have an abstract relationship with the product of their labor. One, named Lin, once gave her a Coach change purse. Chang expected it to be a knockoff, but it turned out to be real. Lin’s factory was making them, and they were handed out as gifts to Lin’s whole family. But those bags have a curious currency. They’re not worthless, but they are not worth anything close to their retail price, since a worker in Dongguan doen’t know anyone who wants to buy one. “What would Marx have made of these workers? Their relationship to their work is far more complicated, and funny, than imagined.” And yet, she says, “his view persists, a tendency to see the workers as faceless masks.”

Chang has watched Lin over several years. She worked in several factories, and then in a purchasing department. She married another worker, gave birth to two children, and bought a used Buick for herself and an apartment for her parents. Recently, she went back to get a job in another purchasing department. Lin told her, “A person should have some ambition when she is young, so when she is old she can look back on her life and feel that it was not lived to no purpose.”

There are 150 million such workers like her in China, one-third of them women — making th the largest migration in history. “The migration has changed the way these people live and marry and work and think. Very few of them want to go back to the way things were.”

When Chang first went to interview the workers, she worried that they wouldn’t talk with her, or that the scene would be terrible. “Instead, I found young women who were brave and funny and generous.”

She’s kept the purse that Lin gave her as a reminder that “The things you imagine sitting in your office or your library are not how you find them when you go out into the world.”

Leslie T. Chang

After the talk, Chris Anderson asked her the question, “If you had one minute with Apple’s head of manufacturing, what would you say?”

“One minute?” she asked back. “The thing about the workers is how self-motivated and resourceful they are.” What they want most is education. They’ll take classes at night. And so, “If you really want to help these workers, start small, focused classes. When you talk to workers, that’s what they say — they don’t want hot water or shorter hours, but education.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson