Monday, August 9, 2010

The Tides Shift...

As many of you may (or may not) know, I began my career after college in China, as a lightbulb man. Yes indeed, lightbulb men, those carefree, heroic individuals who spend their lives wrangling lightbulbs on the open grasslands of Inner Mongolia, herding great flocks of 40 watts into pens, where they are sheared and shipped out to provide light for the Western world. Yaagh! Lightbulbs, ho! ... Yes indeed, noble work.

Before I get carried away by my own nonsensical ramblings, I think I should point out that I actually worked in Guangzhou, in Guangdong province (the original Canton, and sadly at the opposite end of China to the plains of Inner Mongolia). My working life in the Big GZ consisted not of cowboy inspired antics, but of managing a dull and dingy office on the 18th floor of a rickety sky rise. All computer controlled and very simple: lightbulbs get ordered, lightbulbs get packed, lightbulbs get shipped to Ireland, lightbulbs breakdown, customers get angry. There was a set process.

Only rarely did I get to actually see lightbulbs, on supplier visits where we would venture over the Pearl River and out to the factories, located in small hamlets of only a few million people. There, regimented, dehumanised, regulated row after row of young women performed with robotic precision the same movement for 12 hours a day. At the end of their shift, they collapsed into their bunks in the hastily thrown up dormitories around the factory, while their nocturnal bretheren shuffled down, pale and with bloodshot eyes, to take on the night shift.

It was Dickensian, and simultaneously a perfect example of all that is wrong and all that is right with capitalism. These girls were exhausted, with scant opportunities for human contact or emotion. They were, for the few years they were in Foshan or Dongguan or Cixi, mere components in an industrial machine.

And yet, they were immeasurably better off than their grandparents. They would never know hunger, and tough though their lives were, they had far better access to medical care in Guangdong than back in home in Hunan or wherever they happened to be from.

Arrogantly, perhaps, I thought that these sorts of jobs offered fantastic opportunities - if you were from the developing world. After all, had not Europe and the US gone through the exact same process during the Industrial Revolution? Would the hard work and sacrifice of these young women not simply lead to a better, fairer China in the future?

Well, recent news from Ballymote in Sligo suggest that the worm has turned, and I may come to regret that condescending hubris. G-LED, a Taiwanese LED lighting manufacturer (you can't keep a light-bulb man down!) have just announced plans to develop a factory in the town. What does this mean for the locals? What kind of jobs can they expect this development to produce? And are we in Ireland (and the West generally) prepared to accept the argument that this isn't exploitation, merely progress, when we are the ones on the wrong end of the value chain?

If the 21st Century belongs to Asia, then Ballymote or Limerick may soon take the place of Guangzhou or Shenzhen - will we be prepared to accept the rule that economic might makes right then?

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