The War on Christmas: Labor


Sometimes I get addicted to weird cheap crap, like hydrophilic beads, odd LED lightbulbs, or purple lasers. And, often, right after I click “BUY” I think, “whoever makes this stuff must realize what a decadent culture we are.”

They do, it turns out. But, it’s a job, and – now that America has exported its domestic weird cheap crap production – some underpaid person somewhere gets to build it.

The Guardian has a piece you can share with anyone else who hates christmas. It’s a bit of a glimpse into the people who make crappy christmas ornaments that will appear everywhere, briefly, before winding up in dumpsters and landfills. [guardian]

Packaged up in plastic bags, their gleaming red snowflakes hang alongside a wealth of other festive paraphernalia across town in the Yiwu International Trade Market, aka China Commodity City, a 4m sq m wonder-world of plastic tat. It is a pound shop paradise, a sprawling trade show of everything in the world that you don’t need and yet may, at some irrational moment, feel compelled to buy. There are whole streets in the labyrinthine complex devoted to artificial flowers and inflatable toys, then come umbrellas and anoraks, plastic buckets and clocks. It is a heaving multistorey monument to global consumption, as if the contents of all the world’s landfill sites had been dug-up, re-formed and meticulously catalogued back into 62,000 booths.

The worker goes through a dozen breath-masks a day, trying to keep the pigment dust out of his lungs. That’s just a crappy paper mask, not the kind that gives a proper air-seal. Someone is saving money at his expense.

This sort of thing is repeated for every disposable bit of decadence American consumers buy.

WIRED visited a mask-making factory in China that makes latex masks, like the one I wore of Donald Trump. [stderr] Perhaps the one I wore was made and painted by these men and women. [wired]

Hosing rubber into molds. Rotational casting is done by hand, not by machine.

The Altantic also covers the Chinese christmas [atlantic]

Tim Maughan, who traveled to Yiwu this summer, reported for the BBC that he was both mesmerized and appalled by what he saw there. “I watch a girl sew white fur trim on to red felt at the rate of about two hats a minute, and as she finishes each one she simply pushes them off the front of her desk where they fall, silently, onto an ever increasing pile on the floor,” he wrote. “Upstairs is the plastic molding room, mainly staffed by young men, stripped to the waist because of the heat… The men feed plastic pellets from Samsung-branded sacks into machines to be melted down, and then pressed into molds to make toy snowmen and Father Christmases.”

options, options, options…

I’m torn. On one hand: people have jobs. On the other hand, they’re spending their lives making dumpster fodder, so that WAL-MART can get a slightly better price on cheap christmas crap to boost their profit margin.

For the last few years, when I want to give someone something holiday-ish, I send them soap, or caramel corn (reminds me: I need to post my recipe) or something that I’ve made. Part of that is because of the creeping fear that, if I give conventional gifts, I’m participating in the market of crap, but it’s also an awareness on my part that my time is probably the best thing I can give. It’s both worthless and valuable, but mostly it’s because there’s a limited supply.

I don’t do new years’ resolutions, but I’m going to be more careful about not buying cheap crap.

------ divider ------

If you really want to shock yourself, watch the opening scene of Burtynski’s Manufactured Landscapes. [amzn] The movie opens with a slow pan through an electronics assembly plant in China – it could be iPhones, it could be microwave ovens, it doesn’t matter – it’s miles of benches and people assembling stuff: all on the clock, all measured and monitored, all squeezed down to the minimum salary and no benefits.

If you know any laissez-faire capitalists who believe that the free market somehow makes competition more efficient, you can remind them that that “efficiency” is almost always achieved by squeezing the workers harder and harder, by first making sure they have no alternatives, no future, no hope.

As I added the link to the DVD on amazon, I couldn’t help but think that the DVDs are probably made and packaged in a sweatshop, too, and packaged and shipped at amazon’s sweatshop shipping centers (which are pretty abusive)

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    For the last few years, when I want to give someone something holiday-ish, I send them soap, or caramel corn (reminds me: I need to post my recipe) or something that I’ve made. Part of that is because of the creeping fear that, if I give conventional gifts, I’m participating in the market of crap, but it’s also an awareness on my part that my time is probably the best thing I can give. It’s both worthless and valuable, but mostly it’s because there’s a limited supply.

    But you have to give them something, no?

    (At least a Xmas card!)

  2. says

    Partner’s xmas cards are first hand drawn, photocopied in bulk, hand coloured and personalised for all the bods on her annual list.

  3. says

    John Morales@#1:
    But you have to give them something, no?

    I haven’t sent anyone an Xmas card in ages. I used to make big batches of caramel corn, turkish delight, or soap around the end of the year and send random loads out to people.

    I really need to post my caramel corn recipe. It’s the shizznit. Really.

  4. says

    Lofty@#2:
    Partner’s xmas cards are first hand drawn, photocopied in bulk, hand coloured and personalised for all the bods on her annual list.

    See, that’s the way to do it! I strongly approve.

  5. kestrel says

    And here I was feeling bad and cheap because I always hand make stuff for people… Those conditions they work in are horrific. I do think it’s weird what people will buy, but now I think it’s scary too.

    Would love the caramel corn recipe. Or… you don’t happen to make *maple syrup* popcorn, do you?

    When I make caramel, I make what’s called cajeta. http://www.rickbayless.com/recipe/cajeta/ This is a caramel confection made with goat milk. That recipe? Well… personally, I would cut the sugar in half, but it gives you the idea. I have cooked it down enough that you can make actual caramel candies with it. It is delicious!

  6. says

    I generally don’t give my friends Christmas presents at all. It helps that my friends are mostly people who are against the idea of consumerism and buying crap for landfills, so I don’t feel a pressure to buy and give them something just for the sake of it. Usually we just don’t give each other Christmas gifts and that’s it.

    If I’m really obliged to give a present, it’s always food (like chocolate candies, gingerbread and so on). At least that will get eaten and won’t be thrown out.

    And with my family members we just tell each other what we want (or need). There is no surprise about what the gift will be, but at least each one of use gets something that we wanted, thus nothing gets thrown out.

    Back when I was a child, Christmas decorations were made from glass and they were really pretty and good quality. People never threw them out, instead we reused the same decorations every year. In my family we usually bought just one small new decoration each year, thus the amount of Christmas decorations we owned increased in a really slow pace. I guess I’m already sounding like an old grump telling about how grass was greener when I was younger. But I like old stuff — it used to be well made and never meant to be disposable.

  7. says

    kestrel@#5:
    And here I was feeling bad and cheap because I always hand make stuff for people… Those conditions they work in are horrific. I do think it’s weird what people will buy, but now I think it’s scary too.

    The images I found, of the cheap christmas shit factories in China, have convinced me that if I ever give any more christmas gifts, they will all be handmade by me. If it means I give fewer gifts, so be it. On one hand, I find myself thinking “those people need jobs!” but then I remind myself that it’s their bourgeois capitalists that are making all the money. If I wanted to do something for them, I’d have to troll ebay and etsy and support artists who are trying to bypass the bourgeoisie and start their own businesses. There are plenty of those – the people who make all my weird outfits are mostly small home businesses in China – typically a family-run operation that’s working off the books. In that case, when I pay them to make me something, I know that the money is going right to that family’s bottom line and isn’t enriching some sweat-shop owner. Perhaps that’s just my self-justification to have custom-made stuff for myself, but I believe the economics of small direct-to-customer markets are a force for good.

    Would love the caramel corn recipe. Or… you don’t happen to make *maple syrup* popcorn, do you?

    Nope. It’s a complicated recipe. I’ll see if I can dig up the pictures I shot (thinking ahead!) last time I made a batch. It’s really worth it.

    When I make caramel, I make what’s called cajeta. http://www.rickbayless.com/recipe/cajeta/ This is a caramel confection made with goat milk.

    Interesting recipe! It’s kind of “goat milk butterscotch” (you can get the milk fats rendered down faster by using butter instead of milk…)

    Caramels are interesting and sometimes exciting. When they’re exciting, it’s bad.

  8. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#6:
    If I’m really obliged to give a present, it’s always food (like chocolate candies, gingerbread and so on). At least that will get eaten and won’t be thrown out.

    That’s a good strategy!

    Back when I was a child, Christmas decorations were made from glass and they were really pretty and good quality. People never threw them out, instead we reused the same decorations every year. In my family we usually bought just one small new decoration each year, thus the amount of Christmas decorations we owned increased in a really slow pace.

    That is how we did it when I was a kid, too. New ornaments were added now and then, to offset the ornaments broken by the cats. My mom, however, had an inability to throw away broken family relics, so every year we hung these shattered remnants of family ornaments from the depression, which were mostly made of glue and scotch tape.

  9. Dunc says

    DVD production, at least in the US and Europe, is almost completely automated. It’s not outsourced to China because its more efficient to do just-in-time manufacturing and drop-shipping of relatively small volumes.

  10. Johnny Vector says

    And since nobody has brought it up yet, I give you the bridge from Ed Robertson’s Elf’s Lament:

    Trends come and go and your friends want to know
    Why you aren’t just happy
    Making crappy little gizmos.
    Every kid knows they’ll just throw this stuff away.

Leave a Reply