Jonathan Mirsky

Cheap and deadly

Made in China

Think about your knickers. Your bra, shoes, socks, running shoes, anorak, television, towels, light bulbs, computer, and, sooner rather than later, your car or its parts. If they were made here they would be far more expensive. But they’re made in China, so that’s all right then. OK, workers here lose their jobs, but that’s globalisation for you, and anyway there is still plenty of work for people willing to do it. So that China price is really worth it, right? But what if the China price includes Chinese workers living in dark Satanic conditions and hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives lost every year?

We should consider, too, the deadliest remark in Alexandra Harney’s eloquent and vibrant study, from the wife of a Chinese man dying of the lung disease endemic and often fatal for thousands of workers grinding, polishing and crushing stones for cheap export jewellery. Fifty-five per cent of China’s export goods are made of imported parts, ‘by contract manufacturers you have never heard of that produce goods carrying their customers’ brand names’. An expert on the working conditions of men like her husband, the woman said to Harney: ‘Isn’t it because you Americans have brought all your bad factories to China?’

Dead cheap is not China’s only advantage. It has an excellent infrastructure of airports, harbours and railways. For some labour-intensive goods, Harney explains,

the entire supply chain has moved to China, so that components, machinery repair shops and raw materials are clustered together within a two-hour drive of the factory. It will take time to replicate the cluster effect in other countries with lower costs than China.

The price, the real China price, lies at the core of this meticulously researched and wonderfully readable book.

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