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China Says: "Please Exploit Us!"

By Selena Maranjian - Updated Nov 16, 2016 at 2:27PM

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Are bad working conditions better than no work at all?

As a young student of anthropology many years ago, I learned the concept of ethnocentrism, which involves the viewing (consciously or subconsciously) of other cultures as somehow inferior to our own. If eating raw meat is yucky to us, we would tend to look down on another culture where eating raw meat is common.

There's a similar practice in effect in the world of economics and business. This is a touchy topic, but permit me to tread carefully. Here in the Western world, our economy has evolved from one that was heavily involved in manufacturing to one much less so today. Flash back 100 or 150 years, and you'd find appalling working environments in many American factories. Better working hours and conditions were fought for and won. Children, for example, no longer work long hours in dangerous jobs in factories. That's clearly a good thing.

But meanwhile, in other corners of the world today, children are working in factories, sometimes for long hours, sometimes in dangerous conditions, and often for low wages. Adults, too. This has outraged many Americans and others. We demand that these workers get better conditions as soon as possible. We recoil from American companies whose offerings come from "sweatshop" factories abroad. That's nice and well-meaning of us, but I see a problem.

In many of these underdeveloped nations, people earning a paltry wage in a factory consider themselves lucky to have such a job. When children are working in a factory, earning a pittance, they're often generating critical income for their families. It's at least somewhat ethnocentric or econo-centric of us to think that these children should be home playing in their yards when their families live in or near poverty.

Here's an eye-opening bit of news that I read recently at the Asian Labour News website:

"Taiwanese factories in Dongguan. are facing a problem. According to a news report in the United Daily in Taiwan, over a thousand workers at a factory, which produces goods for big brand names such as Nike (NYSE:NKE), demonstrated for two days and damaged equipment and factory cars. 500 armed police arrived and quashed the riot. Several leaders were arrested. The main cause for the riot was the limitation on working hours at the factory. The shorter hours have been requested by U.S. companies so as to avoid criticism from various groups on long working hours. However, the mainly migrant workforce want to work longer hours so they can earn more."

It's a very tricky situation. It's not good for anyone to work 100-hour weeks. But if workers want to, and need the money, what's the right thing to do? Other firms that have been accused of making money directly or indirectly from "sweatshops" abroad include Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP), Kmart (NASDAQ:KMRT), Payless ShoeSource (NYSE:PSS), and Reebok (NYSE:RBK). These and other firms have been taking some steps to improve conditions at their factories, but it's often easier said than done.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to invest in China, read some of these Fool articles:

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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