Does U.S. Olympic Uniform Hoopla Miss the Point?

Despite the raucous raised by U.S. politicians over the revelation that America’s Olympic uniforms are made in China, The Wall Street Journal’s John Bussey asks: Who Cares?

Election seasons often bend sensibility, and this year is no different. Populism gets votes. It also distracts from tackling the big China issues that actually matter to U.S. business: protection of intellectual-property rights, market access, forced transfer of U.S. technology to China, and the ability of China’s state-owned enterprises to crush competitors. These days that agenda is largely on the back burner. Says an executive with a U.S. manufacturer that has operations in China: “The comments reflect either a lack of understanding of comparative advantage and how trade works (the Chinese are really good at producing low-cost uniforms, the U.S. is really good at innovative technology and advanced manufacturing—which would you rather be?), or cynical politics. More likely both.” He doesn’t want to be named and get his company in trouble with the politicians. It’s “grandstanding,” says another manager with a tech multinational. “There are far more important bilateral business and trade issues for both countries.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has stayed silent on the issue, which The Guardian ties to his involvement in a similar uniform controversy during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Larry Popelka urges readers to stop whining about a few “Made in China” tags because is good for American businesses. For the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, however, Robert J.S. Ross writes that critics should focus less on where the uniforms are madeand more on how they are made:

Lost in the wind of words is what should be central to the question of sourcing: conditions for the workers. If China’s workers were sharing in the full fruits of growth, we would have a much smaller volume of American clothing made there. As it is, more than 98% of the dollar value of the Ralph Lauren clothing line is made abroad, much of it in China.

Without more disclosure from the company as to which firms and factories make its goods, we can know only that Chinese apparel workers earn, officially, somewhere between 93 cents to just over $1 an hour; unofficially, they are often paid less than the official minimum, which varies by province and city. Days off are rare, despite laws that entitle them to one day off a week. A late 2011 investigation by China Labor Watch of factories producing for major American brands found employees who said they worked 30 days a month. There is a reason for this: Because wages fall so far behind rising living costs, workers need overtime pay to survive.

Many other abuses are common in China’s export factories. Workers are housed in dorms where conditions are often crowded and the food poor. The first month’s wages are often withheld, so if the workers quit because of bad conditions, they must forfeit a month’s wages. There is no right to form independent unions in China; only theCommunist Party’sAll-China Federation of Trade Unions is permitted, and it is usually a part of management, not responsible (or even known) to the workers. Exhaustion haunts the factory floors of China’s export sector, and since last year, allegations of suicides caused by desperation have received worldwide attention.

Bloomberg’s Adam Minter, meanwhile, points out that the Chinese media feels burned by the uniform debate:

Most commentators focused on what they perceive to be the narrow-minded hypocrisy of cynical American politicians. Take this inflammatory but representative tweet on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, from Yang Rui, a notoriously jingoistic host on the English-language channel of the state-owned China Central Television:

I just finished the live London Olympic countdown broadcast. Regarding American senators wanting to burn those “made-in-China” uniforms in an election year, I just said one sentence in the prologue: It’s a joke, right? I asked: Would they like to burn those “made-in-China” iPhones? Most iPhones are made in China, so they also take away Americans’ jobs? How much does Apple earn in China? This publicity stunt in an election year is so disgusting.

Yang’s tirade is extreme only in tone. Insofar as he blames Reid’s comment on the overheated rhetoric that emerges from U.S. presidential campaigns, he’s fully in the mainstream. The more moderate “CCTV Commentators,” a group Sina Weibo account registered to CCTV’s stable of editorial commentators, tweeted this wary observation on July 17:

Some American politicians complain about the made-in-China uniforms. There will always be voices that attack globalization during election years, or when the U.S. economy is in the doldrums.

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