I recently had a chance to watch an edition of American Experience on PBS on the building of the Panama Canal. While the show was largely complimentary of the amazing feats of engineering building the Canal represented, it noted that one of the more shameful aspects of it was the use of workers from the Caribbean – largely Barbados – to do much of the hard, unskilled work, paying them only ten cents an hour. According to the Inflation Calculator, ten cents an hour in 1905 equates to $2.39 an hour in today’s terms.
Then I read that our friends at FoxConn, in the wake of the unfavorable publicity they – along with their #1 client, Apple – have received, have announced a pay increase.
“In a statement released Friday, Taiwan-owned Foxconn says the pay of junior-level workers at its Shenzhen facilities has risen from 1,500 yuan (US$ 238) to 1,800 yuan (US$ 290) monthly, in an effort to “set a good example for the Chinese manufacturing industry.”
Foxconn says that employees passing a technical exam can expect an even higher starting pay, at 2,200 yuan (US$ 350). “As a top manufacturing company in China, the basic salary of junior workers in all of Foxconn’s China factories is already far higher than the minimum wage set by all local governments,” the company says.”
For a 160 hour month (and the typical Chinese worker thinks he has a part time job if the only works 160 hours) that means the worker passing the technical exam gets $2.18 an hour – twenty one cents less than the ‘shameful’ rate paid to Barbadans to build the Panama Canal. The junior workers fare worse, of course. They get about the same as the ladies who worked in the Triangle Shirwaist factory did before the fire and before they unionized.
Another note of shameful labor practices in our history … the Chinese workers brought in to build the transcontinental railroad were paid a starting wage $27 a month in 1868. At a 160 hour work month (again, part time work compared to what those guys actually did) that equates to $2.73 an hour.
So we have gone from shamefully exploiting Chinese workers to build the railroad at $2.73 an hour in 1868, to even more shamefully exploiting Bardadans in 1905 by paying them even less – $2.39 an hour, to the current day – where we brilliantly pursue the principles of Comparative Advantage and globalization – and pay less yet – $2.18 an hour.
Those of you who work so hard to convince the manufacturing world that there is a better way than the global pursuit of cheap labor ought to document your work. Leave a trail of evidence for your great-great-grandchildren lest they think you were one of those who, in 2012, took shameful labor exploitation to a new low.