The Price of Cheap Goods

Jim Hightower tallies the cost of cheap goods.Like a cat watching the wrong mouse hole, we’re being told to look to Chinese manufacturers when assessing blame for the toxic products that are being exported from there. But wait a minute—where, oh where, are our own country’s regulatory watchdogs?

The big shock is not that Chinese-made toys are laden with lead, but that America’s Consumer Product Safety Commission is a toothless watchdog that employs exactly one inspector to oversee the safety of all toys sold in the U.S. Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration has licensed 714 Chinese plants to manufacture the key ingredients for a growing percentage of the antibiotics, painkillers, and other drugs we buy, but provides practically no oversight of these plants. In 2007, for example, the FDA inspected only thirteen of them.

An even bigger shock is that our consumer protection laws are so riddled with loopholes that unsafe products can legally come into our country. Take phthalate, a chemical additive in plastics that is suspected by scientists here and in Europe of inhibiting testosterone production in infant boys. Yet, Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, reports that while the European Union has banned the use of phthalates in products aimed at children under three years of age, our government has refused to act.

Thus, China has factories that manufacture two lines of toys—one without phthalates for shipment to European countries, and one with phthalates for export to our children.

The problem is not with the Chinese, but with our own corporate chieftains who have moved their manufacturing to China specifically to get these kinds of low-cost shortcuts in production, while simultaneously demanding that Washington cut back on regulations that protect us consumers. We must put our own house in order.

Such giants as Wal-Mart, Dell, and Disney are profiting enormously from this double whammy of low-cost production and lackadaisical regulation. Not content to profiteer, however, the top executives 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 cheap only because the lives of Chinese factory workers are so undervalued. It’s common to find child labor, sixteen-hour days, constant exposure to lead and other poisons, wage rip-offs, and other abuses 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 sixteen-year-old boy in China who works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, running 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.” The boy’s reward is to be paid even less than China’s poverty-level minimum wage of 55 cents an hour.

Corporate officials 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 those factories. BS! They’re the ones demanding cheap production, even if it cheapens lives in China and endangers consumers here.

Note that Wal-Mart boasts that it’s able to track every penny of cost in its sprawling system of procuring and marketing products. Its bean counters know the price of every item coming out of even the most remote Chinese factory. The corporation simply values price over lives.

Jim Hightower produces The Hightower Lowdown political newsletter and is the author of the new book “Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.”