The Production Behind The Consumption

Apple products continue to enjoy high praise for their performance and appearance.  Largely ignored are the oppressive conditions experienced by those workers that produce them.

China Labor Watch has just released a new report on ten factories producing Apple products in China, including a Foxconn plant. It found that labor violations “are still common at Foxconn but also that these violations are rampant throughout Apple’s supply chain.  In fact, conditions can be even worse at other Apple suppliers, including the Riteng factory in Shanghai.”

More specifically, according to the China Labor Watch press release, investigators found the following problems to be common in the ten factories:

Excessive Overtime:  The average overtime in most of the factories was between 100 and 130 hours per month, and between 150 and 180 hours per month during peak production season, well above China’s legal limits.

In most factories, workers generally work 11 hours every day, including weekends and holidays during peak seasons.  Normally they can only take a day off every month, or in the peak seasons may go several months without a day off.

Low wages compel workers to accept long overtime hours.  Most of the factories pay a basic salary equal to the minimum wage stipulated by the local law (around $200/month), so low that workers have to work long hours to support themselves.

Workers are exposed to a variety of dangerous working conditions. Workers in all the factories reported safety concerns such as metal dust and hazardous working environments.

All too often, workers find the food offered in the factory cafeterias unsanitary.  Their housing conditions are frequently overcrowded, dirty, and lacking in facilities.

Most workers are not familiar with unions and their function. They have little ability to push for reasonable working conditions.

Some factories do not pay for workers’ social insurance, work injury insurance, and other insurance required by law.

The report also noted serious problems with the use of dispatched labor.  For example, China Labor Watch’s report: 

revealed that the biggest problem overlooked by Apple in their Social Responsibility Reports, is the prevalent use of dispatched labor in their supply chain.  Except for Foxconn in Shenzhen which transferred all dispatched workers to direct-hire status in 2011, all other investigated factories overused dispatched labor, including Jabil in Shenzhen where dispatched labor made up almost 70% of the workforce.  Of note:

1.   Factories can use dispatched labor to employ people short-term without having to pay severance compensation.

2.   Factories can use dispatched labor to shift responsibility for worker injuries onto another party.

3.   Factories can use dispatched labor to prevent workers from organizing into unions or establishing democratic management systems.

4.   Factories can reduce other forms of worker compensation, and thus their labor costs, by hiring dispatched labor. For instance, when companies contribute to social insurance programs for dispatched workers, they pay a smaller percentage or sometimes do not sign up workers at all. Their labor costs can be reduced by 10% to 15% in this way.

5.   Dispatched workers have no limitation on the amount of overtime that they work. Some have to work more than 150 hours of overtime every month.

6.  Dispatched workers often have to pay sizable fees to the dispatching agency.

Of course, Apple isn’t alone in relying on oppressive working conditions to maximize profits.  In response, Chinese workers have increasingly shown the willingness and ability to take action in defense of their interests.  As China Labour Bulletin’s new interactive strike map shows, strikes in China have increased over the last six months, encompassing different sectors and a growing range of issues. 


For more on the labor situation in China see here and here.  Given the nature of contemporary capitalism’s global production system, workers everywhere have a stake in what happens in China. 


The Shrinking Government

The conventional wisdom seems to be that our biggest economic challenge is runaway government spending. The reality is that government spending is contracting and pulling economic growth down with it.  And worse is yet to come.

Perhaps the best measure of active government intervention in the economy is something called “government consumption expenditure and gross investment.”  It includes total spending by all levels of government (federal, state, and local) on all activities except transfer payments (such as unemployment benefits, social security, and Medicare).  

The chart below shows the yearly percentage change in real government consumption expenditure and gross investment over the period 2000 to 2012 (first quarter).  As you can see, while the rate of growth in real spending began declining after the end of the recession, it took a nose dive beginning in 2011 and turned negative, which means that government spending (adjusted for inflation) is actually contracting.


The following chart, which shows the ratio of government consumption expenditure and gross investment to GDP, highlights the fact that government spending is also falling as a share of GDP.


Adding transfer payments, which have indeed grown substantially because of the weak economy, does little to change the picture.  As the chart below shows, total government spending in current dollars, which means unadjusted for inflation, has stopped growing.  If we take inflation into account, there can be no doubt that total real government spending, including spending on transfer payments, is also contracting. current-total-expenditures.png

The same is true for the federal government, everyone’s favorite villain.  As the next chart shows, total federal spending, unadjusted for inflation, has also stopped growing.


Not surprisingly, this decline in government spending is having an effect on GDP. Real GDP in the 4th Quarter of 2011 grew at an estimated 3 percent annual rate.  The advanced estimate for 1st Quarter 2012 GDP growth was 2.2 percent.  A just released second estimate for this same quarter revised that figure down to 1.9 percent.  In other words, our economy is rapidly slowing.

What caused the downward revision?  The answer says Ed Dolan is the ever deepening contraction in government spending:   

What is driving the apparent slowdown? It would be comforting to be able to blame a faltering world economy and a strengthening dollar, but judging by the GDP numbers that does not seem to be the case. The following table (see below) shows the contributions of each sector to real GDP growth according to the advance and second estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Exports, which we would expect to show the effects of a slowing world economy, held up well in the first quarter. In fact, the second estimate showed them even stronger than did the advance estimate. The contribution of private investment also increased from the advance to the second estimate, although not by as much. Exports and investment, then, turn out to be the relatively good news, not the bad, in the latest GDP report.

Instead, the largest share of the decrease in estimated real GDP growth came from an accelerated shrinkage of the government sector. The negative .78 percentage point decrease of the government sector is the main indicator that we are already on the downward slope toward the fiscal cliff.p120601-1a.png

If current trends aren’t bad enough, we are rapidly approaching, as Ed Dolan noted, the “fiscal cliff.” That is what I was referring to above when I said that worse is yet to come. As Bloomberg Businessweek explains 

Last summer, as part of its agreement to end the debt-ceiling debate (debacle?), Congress strapped a bomb to the economy and set the timer for January 2013. Into it they packed billions of dollars of mandatory discretionary spending cuts, timed to go off at exactly the same time a number of tax cuts [for example, the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll-tax holiday] were set to expire  

The congressional deficit supercommittee had a chance to disarm the bomb last fall, but of course it didn’t. And so the timer has kept ticking. The resulting double-whammy explosion of spending cuts and tax increases will likely send the economy careening off a $600 billion “fiscal cliff.”

The fiscal contraction will actually be even worse, since the extended unemployment benefits program is also scheduled to expire at the end of the year.  

So, what does all of this mean?  According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

If Congress does nothing, the U.S. will almost certainly go into recession early next year, as the combo of spending cuts and tax hikes will wipe out nearly 4 percentage points of economic growth in the first half of 2013, according to research by Goldman’s Alec Phillips, a political analyst and economist. Since most estimates project the economy will grow only about 3 percent next year, that puts the U.S. solidly in the red.

One can only wonder how it has come to pass that we think government spending is growing when it is not and that it is the cause of our problems when quite the opposite is true.  Painful lessons lie ahead—if only we are able to learn them.





The Greek Crisis and Militarization

Greece has been in recession for close to four years and its economy continues its downward slide.  Its unemployment stands at 20.9%, youth unemployment at 48%.  In the words of the Guardian’s economic editor:  

Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.

According to the conventional wisdom, Greece’s current economic problems are the result of years of too much public spending on social programs and too little tax collection.  Foreign borrowing enabled the Greek state to finance its ever larger budget deficits and sustain growth.  However, this strategy reached its limits in 2008.  The global crisis dramatically increased the country’s deficits and foreign lenders grew worried about Greece’s ability to pay its debts.  Unable to tap credit markets, the Greek state and economy entered into crisis.  

In response to the crisis, European institutions and the IMF have offered the Greek state special loans (so they can pay their debts to foreign banks—mostly German and French).  In exchange, the Greek government has agreed to slash its spending.  This has meant massive cuts in state employment and social programs and, of course, a worsening of the country’s economic downturn.

Interestingly, while the media has demonized Greek workers for creating the deficits and moralized about their need to readjust to the realities of Greek economic capacities, little attention has been paid to military spending as a cause of the deficits and the unwillingness of European leaders to demand a significant change in Greek defense spending.

 Here is what a Guardian reporter has to say  

The current EU-IMF bailout remains conditional on further austerity measures, including reducing pensions, the minimum-wage and civil service jobs. However, one area of the Greek budget doesn’t seem to have received much scrutiny: its huge military spending. . . .

In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession. 

So, what is driving this military spending—well just as German and French banks have been among the biggest lenders to the Greek state, German and French arms producers have been among the biggest arms sellers to the Greek state.  As the Guardian article explains:

In the five years up to 2010, Greece purchased more of Germany’s arms exports than any other country, buying 15% of its weapons. Over the same period, Greece was the third-largest customer for France’s military exports and its top buyer in Europe. Significantly, when the first bail-out package was being negotiated in 2010, Greece spent 7.1bn euros (£5.9bn) on its military, up from 6.24bn euros in 2007. A total of £1bn was spent on French and German weapons, plunging the country even further into debt in the same year that social spending was cut by 1.8bn euros. It has claimed by some that this was no coincidence, and that the EU bail-out was explicitly tied to burgeoning arms deals.

Greece has finally begun to reduce its military spending, but the cuts in the military budget have been far smaller than those in social programs.  In fact, Greece remains in the top spot in the EU for spending on the military as a percentage of GDP and is still one of the world’s biggest weapons importers.

An article in the German press offers the following picture of how military spending is being handled relative to social programs:

In 2010 the military spending budget should have been cut by only 0.2 percent of economic output, or by €457 million. That sounds like a lot, but the same document proposed to cut back on social spending by €1.8 billion. In 2011, according to the EU Commission, Greece was to strive for “cutbacks in defense spending”. The Commission, though, didn’t make it explicit.

The Greek Parliament was quick to exploit this freedom. The 2012 budget proposes cuts to the social budget of another nine percent, or about €2 billion. The contributions to NATO, on the other hand, are expected to rise by 50 percent, to €60 million, and current defense spending by up to €200 million, to €1.3 billion – an increase of 18.2 percent.

And the German Federal Government’s stance? According to a spokesman, responding to an enquiry, the German government supports “the policy of consolidation of the Greek Prime Minister Papademos. The government’s guiding assumption is that the Greek government will, on its own responsibility, contemplate meaningful cuts in military spending.”

On June 17, Greece will hold national parliament elections.  As the Washington Post explains: 

Let’s recall the background. Greece owes a whole bunch of money it can’t repay. In February, the country received a $140 billion bailout from the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. In exchange, Greece is supposed to make a bunch of sharp spending cuts. Greek voters don’t like this, given that their country’s economy is already in tatters. But if they don’t accept further austerity, they might not get the bailout. . . . So that’s the context for the upcoming Greek parliamentary elections.

The two parties leading in the opinion polls are Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which rejects the austerity agreement and is promoting a restructuring of the Greek economy (of course, more is at issue than just military spending), and Nea Dimokatia (New Democracy), which has basically endorsed the status quo.  Here is an article that provides some background on the main parties contesting the upcoming election and here is a statement of Syriza’s program for economic transformation.  The statement is well worth reading; it includes policies that would be helpful for people in many countries.