Columns » Hightower

The price of cheap goods


Wal-Mart, Dell, Disney and other corporate giants are profiting enormously by moving the manufacturing of their consumer products to China. Not content to profiteer, however, the top executives of these giants insist that they should get credit for serving the moral good. Look, they say, we are helping American families by bringing cheap products to them.

What these moral exemplars don't mention is that the goods are only cheap because the lives of Chinese factory workers are treated so cheaply. Child labor, 16-hour days, constant exposure to lead and other poisons, wage rip-offs and other abuses are common in factories that stock the shelves of our stores and line the pockets of our corporate CEOs.

You want cheap? What's a finger worth? A study of factories in just one area near Hong Kong found that workers there lose or break 40,000 fingers on the job every year.

Or consider the cheap treatment of a 16-year-old boy in China who works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, on a plastic molding machine to produce stuff for Wal-Mart stores. His hands are covered with blisters, because, as he explained to a New York Times reporter, the machines are "quite hot, so I've burned my hands." He also says, "It's quite noisy, and you stand up all day, 12 hours, and there's no air conditioning." The boy's reward is to be paid even less than China's poverty-level minimum wage of 55 cents an hour. If inspectors show up, he's given the day off factory owners tend to get advance notice of audits.

Corporate executives here claim that they're appalled by these conditions, but they shrug and say they simply can't keep track of what goes on in all these factories. BS! They're the ones demanding cheap production, even if it cheapens lives, and they certainly manage to track every dime that flows from the most remote Chinese factory to their own bottom line.

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush, on sale now from Viking Press. For more information, visit

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