I love my iPhone (although I do think iTunes is pants), so I genuinely cringe as I discover more about the people who made it for me. It appears that Apple has a long way to go before its workers are treated right. And a major barrier to those Chinese workers getting treated fairly is a lack of an independent trade union and enforceable labour rights.
China’s economy is able to grow so fast in large part because employers can buy disposable labour so cheaply, while a non-existent welfare state ensures people will take any job on offer. So when David Cameron had one of his friends from the city, Adrian Beecroft, report on how our economy could grow, its no great surprise that he unimaginatively suggested:
‘…a bonfire of regulations which would effectively roll back decades of employment protections for millions of Britons… rip up the rules on unfair dismissal and make it easier to sack “under-productive” staff… Firms should have been allowed to opt out of a whole range of regulations including forced pension contributions, flexible parental leave and equal pay audits… They would have been allowed to bring back a default retirement age, slash redundancy notice periods, have payouts at tribunals capped, and bring in more staff from overseas… Mr Beecroft’s report even suggested a new licensing regime to make easier for small firms to employ children…’
— Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2012
All reminiscent of Thatcher’s vision for Britain in Europe. Her great idea was that the UK should be a haven of cheap, disposable labour that would suck in all the jobs from the rest of the continent as the removal of trade barriers allowed our cheap products to flood their markets. But the rest of Europe was not stupid and rather than restrict their trade unions and remove their employment rights in a great race to the bottom, they opted for treaties that would protect the rights of workers throughout the EU. (And this is why Tories hate Europe so much: they won’t let us rip off our workers.)
Chinese growth rates may be the envy of the world, but the price is paid by the majority of ordinary people forced to work tedious jobs in often dangerous conditions for sixty hours a week for a subsidence wage and no pension. Britain went through that in its own industrial revolution and saw life expectancy in Manchester fall to 26. Let’s not go back to that.