Random thoughts on overseas labor.

I work at a pretty basal level of manufacturing in this country. I run machinery that converts paper. This means that I may coat it, emboss it, laminate it, print a pattern on it or whathaveyou. I personally run material that will eventually be converted into things like monopoly game boards, earring cards and boutique shopping bags that will likely hold $400 functionally inert shoes.

Increasingly over the past few years, we’ve been getting rolls sent in from customers who got them from China. These rolls are terrible.

Let me put this in context:

The particular process that spawned this post is called lamination. If you don’t know what that is…well…I don’t know what to tell you. Anyway, while laminating, I have one roll of release liner–essentially the waxy paper type stuff that you peel stickers off of. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. Now, that roll is about 7500 yards long, and we run at either 30″ or 26″ width. This stuff isn’t coated with wax, it’s actually silicon. That way, the adhesive will dry and stay on it, but then when it gets mushed onto other material, it will transfer the adhesive to that. The process is called transfer coating. As the paper unwinds, it runs over an applicator that then meters the coating down to a specified weight. It then enters a 35′ long oven that is set to 200 degrees.

On the far end of the machine, another roll is unwinding. This is the stuff we actually get paid for. Could be paper, could be cloth, could be vinyl. Could be 10 cents a yard, could be 10 dollars a yard. This stuff unwinds in unison with the release liner, and goes through what’s called a nip. This is where the slur for Asians came from (not necessarily from the paper industry, but from the idea of a narrow, squinty little area). It’s a pinch point (like their eyes…hence the slur) that applies even pressure across the width, to set the adhesive into the paper it’s actually meant to stick to. It’s got about 90 psi holding it closed. The new sandwich of liner, glue, and product then rewinds into one big roll. The total travel distance from liner unwind to rewind is probably about 60 feet for the liner, and probably 15-20 for the actual product.

When you’re running glue in an industrial coating machine with a 35′ long oven at 100+ feet a minute with the intention of sticking it to another piece of paper on the fly, small issues become catastrophes that, aside from ruining product, make you feel like a real asshole for wasting two hours cleaning shit.

So, now that you have an idea what’s going on, I can get back to the story.

I was running this paper, ordered from China by our biggest customer and sent to us to laminate. In China, they put an off-white pearlescent coating on it. Side note–I do that on my machine, too…it’s just way cheaper to AIR FREIGHT the paper OVERNIGHT to China, coat it, and SEND IT BACK, than it is to send it a few towns over (literally) for me to coat it before laminating it. But I digress…

This paper was 31” wide–just wider than my liner, which is good news, because if something happens with the liner, the paper is wider than it and will usually cover a defect before it ruins my production. It’s typical in paper coating to cut a crescent shaped sample to test for color fastness. Well. One of these unwound from the Chinese roll today. Not a small one. It was probably 3′ long, and went about 14″ into the 31″ width of the paper.

So. Now I have a problem. At 110fpm, without any warning, a section of paper roughly the size of  half a hula hoop is missing from where it’s supposed to be so I can shove this glue on it.

And it enters the nip, at that same 110fpm. And that glue transfers off of the liner, just like it’s supposed to do. And the nip continues turning, and now IT gets paper stuck to it because the nip does not transfer glue (I should look into that….).

So now I have to let the issue compound itself as I slow the machine down and lift the liner off the applicator.

My first instinct is to throw a Molitov Cocktail into a Chinese restaurant. And therein lies the inspiration for this post.

Why am I pissed off at the Chinese guy who cut the half moon? He is only trying to feed his family. He is paid miserably, and often made to work mandatory overtime to meet quota before he can leave. Anecdotal? Here:


So, this guy is working in miserable conditions, trying to feed at least himself, but in a Confucian society, likely his aging parents, if not a wife and kid/s (the one child thing isn’t quite a law…it’s more like something the government heckles you about, and offers incentives for people who comply). The joke that goes around the shop about it is that they’re working for a bowl of rice, with a guy waiting behind him offering to work for half a bowl of rice.

So no…he isn’t this evil Communist wringing his hands together as he maliciously cuts a big crescent in this paper that’s going to the stupid round-eyes, knowing it’s going to ruin my day. That doesn’t even make sense. Think this guy’s boss gives a shit about him? Think he’d still have his job if his boss got a complaint about the product he ran?

No. He’s trying to make a quota, and this is what happens.

So now I get to thinking, “I’m not pissed off at him at all.” And I’m not. I’m pissed of at the American fucking asshole who is exploiting this guy on the other side of the world to save a couple hundred bucks. Seriously. It made me think of the story of Schwinn bicycles. You might not know it:

They used to be the largest manufacturer of bicycles back in the mid 1900s. They capitalized (Capitalism) on extremely cheap overseas labor and opened manufacturing plants in Japan and Taiwan. And they made some pretty damn good bikes. To keep up with the production demands, these overseas plants continued investing in better equipment.

Meanwhile, Schwinn’s domestic production plants weren’t upgraded. Why? Overseas labor is so fucking cheap, that’s why.

Eventually the labor costs got too expensive, and Schwinn was in trouble. They pulled out of Japan and Taiwan.

Now, they might not be American, but these people aren’t stupid. They aren’t about to sit there and weep over their loss of shit wages while ignoring their expertise in bicycle construction and state-of-the-art production facilities.

So guess what happened? Taiwan founded Giant Bicycles.

Heard of Giant? Well, in 2007 they sold over 5 million bicycles, seeing almost a billion dollars (that’s US) in revenue. They also have Olympic cycling teams.

Where is Schwinn, again? I think you’ll find them for about $100 at Target and Wal Mart.

All because of this bullshit pursuit of cheap garbage and insane/immediate profits.

So when we force outsourced labor in search of cheap profits, there is a broad ripple effect. And I don’t mean that to imply that the Chinese guy who got a job at a paper factory means that an American worker is out of work. Not at all, and far from it.

The company at which I work needs to bring in $10,000 monthly just to keep from boarding up the windows. That’s just wages. The customer who sent us this roll has often paid that amount, in one week. All coming off the machine that I run.

What happens when some ubercapitalist prick wants to drive down costs by using overseas labor exploitation is that corners are cut. That cut corner means that my poor ass has to spend an hour and a half cleaning glue off of a machine because of a very preventable defect. This wasn’t a matter of me being off somewhere texting or bullshitting. I was standing right there. I saw it happen. And it takes about 10 yards from the decision to stop my machine to the point where it’s actually not running anymore. And I’m not the only one working here. There are machines that would be down for half a WEEK if a folded over rip went through the nips. Seriously. And it’s happened, and not just to me. This isn’t just me bitching about being down for two hours.

Me cleaning for an hour and a half also means that I have to spend another 20 minutes setting back up. So roughly 2 hours are lost. I’m paid for this. The company isn’t. This increases exponentially when you take in all of the cut corners to meet production quotas overseas and all of the downtime, year round, across the country.

The options when it comes to a roll like this is to rewind it and inspect for defects at our cost, do the same and attempt to bill the customer for it, or reject it and lose the business, as well as the time setting up and running (while it was) the materials wasted and the labor paid while wasting it. In this case, it was returned.

And this happens to ME several times a year. If it happens 10 times–and that’s a reasonable to assumption–I am paid for half a week of nothing, plus wasted materials in the form of adhesive and release liner, and not to mention the gas it takes to heat a 35 foot over. How many companies are bleeding because of shit like this? I don’t know. But I bet if my company went under and some conservative talk host heard about it, his reaction would be “well, if they were a good company, they would’ve been able to compete.”

This is beyond competition.

A couple months ago I got my hand caught in one of these machines. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the pictures. What do you think would’ve happened if the guy in China who made that cutout in my roll had that happen to him? Think he would’ve gone to the emergency room and gotten stitched up on his boss’ dime? Think again.

This out of sight, out of mind mentality needs to stop. “Buy American” is a crock of shit. With all of the hidden overseas labor, it really is. Honestly, I think it would be more consistent with American values to BOYCOTT American products based on overseas labor exploitation and source ethically produced overseas goods, to support “their” rights to have a life outside of wage slavery while simultaneously driving business from the companies that would seek to exploit people in the name of their own profit. And wage slavery is exactly what it is.

Yes, Americans make fantastic products. Why do you think that is? It’s because we’re made up of immigrants, miscreants and slaves who weren’t afraid to get shit done, and who eventually realized the asshole in charge only had his money because of our work. We got fucking pissed, and we got rights. And not for nothing, but it was actually the Socialists who got us things like minimum wage, child labor laws and the 40 hour work week that we all take for granted.

And now we’re denying these same rights–and even the opportunity to PURSUE THEM–to people no different from us at all, who are going through EXACTLY what we went through as a country. All for what? So we can sell our economy while the rest of the world invests in education and engineering, and then deny the implications of and the science surrounding the consequences of our actions when it comes time to own up? So we can get cheap pants? Fake trees for the living room because real ones are too much work?

And looking at the economy, at all of the overseas issues and human rights violations. At the denial of climate change so that we can decimate the environment further instead of just investing in renewable and sustainable resources like THE REST OF THE WORLD IS DOING (the rest of the world, you know…that obscure place that isn’t America?). Even if climate change is non existent, how can it hurt to be on the cutting edge of new technology development?

China is building a fucking solar city. http://www.chinasolarcity.cn/Html/dezhou/index.html

And we’re bickering about access to a fuel source that is not renewable, past it’s peak of global supply, in increasingly poorer quality and/or in areas of the world that don’t particularly care for us…oh, but we can just destroy wilderness ecosystems and drill domestically, in turn polluting our water supplies (and indirectly, food supplies) and ruining our air quality, right?

In short: The ability of American workers to thrive while producing quality products is directly proportional to the quality of life of the overseas worker if he is to supply us with materials at any point in the supply chain.

Let’s not forget where we came from.


About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 05/04/2012, in Political mumbo-jumbo. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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