But there is some possibly hopeful news emerging:
Yan Li spent his life tweaking tiny bolts, on a production line, for the gadgets that make our lives zing and bling. He might have pushed a crucial component of the laptop I am writing this article on, or the mobile phone that will interrupt your reading of it. He was a typical 27-year-old worker at the gigantic Foxconn factory in Shenzen, Southern China, which manufactures i-Pads and Playstations and mobile-phone batteries.
Li was known to the company by his ID number: F3839667. He stood at a whirring line all day, every day, making the same tiny mechanical motion with his wrist, for 20p an hour. According to his family, sometimes his shifts lasted for 24 hours; sometimes they stretched to 35. If he had tried to form a free trade union to change these practices, he would have been imprisoned for 12 years. On the night of 27 May, after yet another marathon-shift, Li dropped dead.
Deaths from overwork are so common in Chinese factories that they have a word for it: guolaosi. China Daily estimates that 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us. Li had never experienced any health problems, his family says, until he started this work schedule; Foxconn say he died of asthma and his death had nothing to do with them. The night Li died, yet another Foxconn worker committed suicide -- the tenth this year.
It's the human equivalent of battery farming.
The political practices of Maoism were neatly transferred from communism to corporations: both regard human beings as dispensable instruments only there to serve economic ends.
Of course, whether or not this movement manages to succeed is yet to be seen. It may, of course, end up being thoroughly crushed by the Chinese government.
An epic rebellion has now begun in China against this abuse -- and it is beginning to succeed. Across 126,000 Chinese factories, workers have refused to live like this any more. Wildcat unions have sprung up, organised by text message, demanding higher wages, a humane work environment, and the right to organise freely.
You can read the whole article right here.
In the meantime, let's all do our best to buy goods that are manufactured where workers are treated decently. One good way is to buy used items from flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores. True, the items may still have been originally made somewhere unsavory but at least your dollars and mine will be helping people trying to make it as entreprenures or supporting non-profits organizations. Those dollars will not then be going into the pockets of the big corporations that exploit people.