WUHU, China -- Years after activists accused Nike and other Western brands of running Third World sweatshops, the issue has taken a surprising turn.
The path of discovery winds from coastal factory floors far into China's interior, past women knee-deep in streams pounding laundry. It continues down a dusty village lane to a startling sight: arrays of gleaming three-story houses with balconies, balustrades and even Greek columns rising from rice paddies.
It turns out that factory workers -- not the activists labeled "preachy" by one expert, and not the Nike executives so wounded by criticism -- get the last laugh. Villagers who "went out," as Chinese say, for what critics described as dead-end manufacturing jobs are sending money back and returning with savings, building houses and starting businesses.
Workers who stitched shoes for Nike Inc. and apparel for Columbia Sportswear Co., both based near Beaverton, are fueling a wave of prosperity in rural China. The boom has a solid feel, with villagers paying cash for houses.
"No one would take out a mortgage to build a house," said Wang Jianguo, 37, who returned after a factory injury in a distant province to the area near Wuhu, west of Shanghai. "You wouldn't feel secure living in a house you didn't own."
In the end, market forces and ambition, not activism or corporate initiatives, pushed up wages and improved working conditions. The forces originally unleashed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping still drive China's economy, producing a manufacturing labor shortage and giving villagers viable choices beyond factory work.
Improved living standards don't negate criticism by activists who castigated the outsourcing industry, especially Nike, a 1990s lightning rod for allegations of low pay and onerous working conditions. Abuses continue in some plants, especially those unconnected to international brands.
But longtime activists acknowledge that the sweatshop issue has lost steam, at least concerning China. Conditions and wages have improved, says Jeffrey Ballinger, a critic who still dismisses corporate-responsibility programs -- in which Nike, Columbia and other companies set standards and inspect factories -- as spin.
"My complaint always was they should have been able to make that kind of wage without working 70 hours a week," said Ballinger, a McMaster University doctoral candidate in political science. He wants the Obama administration to push countries to require higher "living wage" levels.
This is not to say that life is easy for Chinese factory workers, but it does sound like rather than being helpless victims of the "capitalist machine" many of these workers are bringing the same work ethic to factory work that they previously applied to farming -- an occuption which itself often involves putting in 70 hours weeks. The difference is that many workers see the opportunity to make their children's lives significantly better than their own have been. The stories here are fascinating, and underscore both how much harder these people are working than many in the US, and at the same time how this allows them to open up possibilities previously unimaginable for them:
The average employee at Ever Rich Knitting Garment Co.'s plant near Guangzhou, China, makes $220 a month, which can double during busy seasons.
The pay is minuscule by Western measures. But Mon Xijian, a 31-year-old who has worked at Ever Rich since 1996, has saved enough with his wife, who also works there, to buy a six-unit apartment building back home.
The couple don't recommend the lifestyle. They see their two children -- who live at home with Mon's in-laws 1,200 miles away -- every year or two. Yet Mon far prefers factory work to farming. He's saving to send his son and daughter to college so they can escape both.
"I want them to get as much higher education as possible," said Mon, who irons Columbia garments.
Chu Zhiling, a young woman at Beijing Topnew garment factory, sends 80 percent of her income home to Inner Mongolia -- a region with 19 percent economic growth last year, the highest in China.
"I'd like to open a shop, like my friend who has a boutique selling coats," Chu said. "Now that I've seen the world, I have so many more choices than my parents had."
U.S. journalist Leslie Chang followed young Chinese assembly-line workers for her recently published book, "Factory Girls." Chang says money sent home, and migrants moving back, are changing rural China.
Line workers, she says, can earn several times the average $200 annual income of a farm family.
"They're sleeping 12 in a dorm, and it looks like a pretty crappy life," Chang said. "But you don't hear workers say, 'Oh, I have no hope, I'm a slave.' They say, 'I want to save some money. My dream is to be Bill Gates or to own a restaurant.'"
Chang views sweatshop critics as condescending. She notes that the 19th-century U.S. industrial economy developed in a similar way, as Vermont and New Hampshire farm girls migrated to work in Massachusetts textile plants, sending savings home. She says savvy Chinese workers, not preachy activists, are securing better conditions and wages in China's fast-developing economy.
Yet critics did push Nike and other companies to develop factory standards and inspections.
the people interviewed talking about working these crushing hours so that they can later start their own businesses and work closer to home on things that they enjoy more.
That formula is working -- after two decades -- for Chen Laixiang, a 40-year-old villager from Anhui province, long one of China's poorest inland areas. Chen's face is weathered and his hands callused from working outside for 20 years, pouring concrete in cities ranging from Nanjing to Beijing.Does this mean that "free enterprise will solve all our problems and we just need to deregulate and let it work"? No. A libertarian utopia is as unlikely as any other kind. But it does serve to emphasize that for all the difficulties, polution and disruption, the global economy is not some inhuman machine mindlessly chewing up helpless victims in developing countries. Faced with new opportunties, and new difficulties, distributed free-market systems allow millions of people to make individual decision, weighing the difficulties against the benefits, and gradually work towards what they consider a better life for themselves. The apparent disorder masks millions of people individually seeking out ways to better themselves, their families and their communities.
Now Chen and his brother, a woodworker, are back -- starting a business in Zhi Chang, their native village. They won permission to lease land and enlarge a pond.
The brothers are stocking the pond with fish. As 50-50 partners, they took a small-business class and invested $22,000 to build a fishing resort.
"I don't want to live in other cities anymore," Chen said. "I want to promote the local economy."
Nearby in the town of Nan Hu, returnee Zhang Litian operates a one-van taxi service. He used to drive a forklift at a chemical factory in Anhui's capital city, saving almost $1,500 a year.
"Staying home is better," said Zhang, 42, a father of two. "Now I can earn much more money than working outside."
And while it is certainly admirable for people to seek better conditions and wages for those in the poorest nations, it is absolutely essential that people not in the process choke off access to the opportunities for betterment which local people are taking advantage of -- however unattractive those opportunities may look to spectators from more wealthy countries.