Smart Factories: A Solution for Sweatshops in China
By: Daniel Bartels, Jorge Duarte, Eunji Kim, & Natalia Laresgoiti
Sweatshops are defined as factories or workshops where manual workers are employed for low wages under extremely poor conditions, often threatening their safety. At least 18 countries in the world currently operate sweatshops, one of the biggest offenders being the People’s Republic of China. Worker abuse happens in most Chinese factories that supply to Western companies. An example of one such company is Apple, which exploited sweatshops in China to produce iPhones and iPads while only paying workers $1.12 per hour (Cooper). China’s sweatshops are a growing problem and urgently need a solution.
NMASS, The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, has hired us to help. NMASS is a multi-trade, multi-ethnic workers’ center where “working people unite across industry, race, nationality and gender to fight for the changes we need in our workplaces, communities and lives” (nmass.org). As an interdisciplinary team including members in finance, international affairs, electrical engineering, and marketing, we were asked to find a holistic solution for sweatshops. We are to work with the National People’s Congress, which is the legislative branch which oversees the government in China.
Our plan is to convince the National People’s Congress to implement smart factories. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating that switching to smart factories is less dangerous for its people and more economical for China. We recommend reallocating sweatshop laborers as smart factory caretakers to lessen any chance of increased unemployment. With the support and experience of NMASS and our extensive research, we have built a strong, reasonable case that can be implemented.
Although China has had rapid economic growth in the past 20 years, about 36% of its population lives on less than $2 a day, meaning that about 1 billion people currently lives below the poverty line (Barboza). China’s economy is mostly based on factories and sweatshops, which is why there has been a growing population of migrant workers traveling from rural areas to urban areas. Although it has been years since big companies began promoting efforts to end sweatshop labor in China, the issue has yet to be resolved. According to a study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, factory workers lose or break about 40,000 fingers on the job per year (Barboza). Workers work up to 16 hours a day on assembly lines and earn about $120 a month, which is far below the legal minimum wage. Factories not only have horrible working conditions, but are also more prone to large devastating incidents; hundreds of workers have died from fires and other factory malfunctions. Sweatshops are an even bigger concern when they involve children. Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a sports factory called Pear Delta was exposed for exploiting child labor. It was revealed thereafter that hundreds of children were abducted from Henan and forced into labor in many factories (Fleetwood).
Companies have been pressured by the United States and other countries to stop using sweatshops. Many western companies have threatened to pull their businesses from China if nothing is done regarding the working conditions in factories (Fleetwood). A popular idea for solving the problem of workshops and mistreatment of workers is to utilize automated factories, termed “smart factories.” Smart factories use advanced software and manufacturing technology to facilitate physical processes, which is the most dangerous part of sweatshop labor. Rather than working people into exhaustion, machines can be used to assemble and create products with very little human interaction. Smart factories when compared to sweatshops show 18.5% average growth in a factory’s productivity and the quality of an item produced.
The Chinese government should implement harsher laws against sweatshops because those factories abuse their hardworking people for low wages and treat their citizens as disposable machine pieces. Even large companies that have used those practices in the past are threatening to leave China’s economy without signs of change (Fleetwood). With our hardworking, interdisciplinary team, we will craft a detailed, holistic plan.
A smart factory is an environment where machinery and equipment improve processes through automation and self-optimization (Otto Motors). Smart factories are meant to reduce the need for human beings on the factory floor, eliminate errors while making production more effective, and eliminate mundane blue-collar jobs. Overall, the implementation of smart factories will reduce the number of sweatshops in China while also helping eliminate unfavorable working conditions. However, building and improving factories in order to improve the life of workers in China is not as straightforward as it seems. Smart factories can have both positive and negative effects on working conditions.
The primary concern with smart factories is that as they emerge, in the short term, low-skill laborers will lose their jobs to automation. However, as mentioned in Manufacturing Tomorrow’s article, “as the smart factory slowly emerges, the roles that people take on will evolve from what they are currently doing in today’s factories” (Manufacturing Tomorrow). In the long-run, “People will take on more complex roles while automation will conquer the tasks that are repeatable, mundane or currently impacted by labor shortage” (Manufacturing Tomorrow). Replacing jobs with automation and having them prepare jobs requiring higher skills will improve quality of life by increasing skilled workers in these factories and avoiding risks of labor shortage. Also, even if jobs are lost to automation, historical data from the 19th century suggests that “the growth of jobs in the creative, care, tech and business service industries have more than offset the loss of jobs in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors” (Makortoff). Even though workers might lose a job that paid menially, those jobs endanger their lives, which no amount of money can bring back. With the implementation of smart factories and the development of China as an emerging nation-state, more people will eventually enjoy a higher quality of life, working jobs that require higher skill levels. The People’s Republic of China must embrace change in order to keep up with our rapidly globalizing world, and strive for higher standards in quality of life.
The other big point of discussion when considering upgrading current factories into smart factories is the cost. Adding sensors for each smart machine could be as high as $100,000 per machine, and adding Wi-Fi coverage in a large facility could be a $250,000 investment. (O’Connor) However, the economic growth of these factories will greatly outweigh the costs of implementation. The technology required to operate machinery is becoming cheaper, and once a smart factory is implemented, the up-front investment will pay for itself and produce a profit. Also, many foreign companies will support and continue to invest in these factories with the positive media coverage that comes with moving away from sweatshop labor.
Though it is certainly not an easy task, the benefits of implementing smart factories greatly outweigh the costs. Smart factories will increase the quality of life for workers while also ushering China into the future and helping them to remain competitive. Technological advances and manufacturing will always be tied together and by preparing for change not only in the logistical side but also the people’s side is key for higher standards of living in the future while also eliminating the poor and unfair working conditions caused by sweatshops in China.
Visual_Final_DraftBarboza, David. 5 January 2008. In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay. The New York Times. nytimes.com
Cooper, Rob. 25 January 2013. Inside Apple’s Chinese ‘sweatshop’ factory. Daily Mail. dailymail.co.uk.
Fleetwood, Jessica. 31 August 2015. China Stuck In Time: Children in Sweatshops. Washington State University. history105.libraries.wsu.edu.
What is the Smart Factory and its Impact on Manufacturing? (2017, January 12). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from https://www.ottomotors.com/blog/what-is-the-smart-factory-manufacturing
More Advanced Manufacturing and Factory Automation Resources. (2017, January 24). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from http://www.manufacturingtomorrow.com/article/2017/01/what-is-the-smart-factory-and-its-impact-on-manufacturing/9043
Makortoff, K. (2015, August 19). Don’t fear the robots, tech creates jobs: Report. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from http://www.cnbc.com/2015/08/19/dont-fear-the-robots-tech-creates-more-jobs-than-it-destroys-report.html
O’Connor, M. C. (2016, June 07). Bringing Smart Technology to Old Factories Can Be Industrial-Size Challenge. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/bringing-smart-technology-to-old-factories-can-be-industrial-size-challenge-1465351322
Lin, J. (2017, April 7). Taiwan to invest NT$70B in smart machinery industry. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from http://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3135565