'Outsourcing' as 'Insourcing'

By Chesterton, Josephine; Docherty, Patrick | The World and I, December 2007 | Go to article overview

'Outsourcing' as 'Insourcing'


Chesterton, Josephine, Docherty, Patrick, The World and I


The View from the Chinese Side

A random sample of replies to the question "What do you think of outsourcing?" does not indicate much positive support for it on the streets of the US and Europe. "I fear we are losing the ability to make things at all now" ... "A cheap sweater could cost you your job" ... "When workers here lose their jobs, we end up paying for it in taxes--I don't see any gain."

Yet one of the few things about which most economists agree is that free market economies grow faster, are more productive, and raise general living standards more than Marxist or other regulation bound ones. So, on the basis that the more of a good thing you can get the better, a GLOBAL free market in trade and investment would it seems be a universal good. But even if most people and most countries do get richer as a result of free trade and investment, there are always losers as well as winners.

Thus "Outsourcing," the production of goods--and sometimes services--in lower wage countries for use in higher wage countries (very often using investment from companies in the richer country) has become the greatest fear of workers across the western world.

In fact, no one who is directly--and adversely--affected by free trade and outsourcing is in favor of it. It does not matter however 'fair' it might be, however many workers in China his or her fifteen dollars an hour could feed, clothe and house. In the end, the view one takes on outsourcing will depend on what one regards as the unit of concern: the self, the country or the globe. If one tries to judge the greatest benefit to the largest number of workers globally it is hard to escape the fact that the big losers seem to be the wealthier workers in the developed world but that there are many more winners and they are mainly among the world's very poorest workers.

In this short article we do not try to air all the legitimate views on both sides of the outsourcing debate. Rather we hope to illustrate the issues which people on the ground in China--the source of the largest amount of outsourcing momentum--are grappling with. Some of the reactions are surprising.

Working mothers

Gong Ping is a woman in her mid 30s. She is dressed in tight jeans and a t-shirt and has cropped hair and a cheeky smile. She has a booming voice, a raucous laugh and a great propensity to chat. We meet in Hangzhou where Gong Ping works in an umbrella factory. She does not know whether the umbrellas are exported (they are--her factory is American owned and makes for international brand names). Gong Ping lives in a room in a shabby dormitory building near the factory. Her husband and twin 13 year old sons live several hundred miles away in Anhui Province a poor but beautiful mountainous area to the west.

Like most migrant workers she will go and visit her family once a year at the two week spring festival break which usually occurs around late January (the Chinese Lunar New Year). We chat over a bowl of noodles in a greasy spoon near her accommodation on her weekly day off. "Our family is not like some in our area who really are poor and sometimes even worry about food," she explains. "Our family has enough to eat and we have a house--we built it. I work here to pay for school fees. If I didn't come out and work our boys would not get an education.

"I know plenty of people who can't afford to educate their children but we want our boys to be educated. And they are good students I have to admit."

I ask why she comes out to work and not her husband. "My husband can work the equipment on our own land better than me and I do feel that he is the best one to stay with the boys now because I never spent a day of my life in a school."

The second time we meet she tells me the real reason her husband is not the migrant worker in the family. "He lost three fingers working on a construction project. I was about five months pregnant with the twins then. …

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