We interrupt the Life with Joseph series to bring you this very important post from the Occasional CEO:  Lowell on the Yangtze.

Whenever I read about the Industrial Revolution—or watch a movie like How Green Was My Valley, I can't help thinking that it could have been done better.  Couldn't we have had automation and factories without all that dislocation, degradation and filth?

Of course we could have.  Raping the landscape, tearing families apart, and keeping workers in virtual slavery are not essential to production—if businesses are willing to take a little less profit, and consumers to pay a little more for the product.  But that's not how it happened.

The horrors of the Industrial Revolution are not safely tucked away in history books, a sad time in our past that we are happy to have outgrown.  They are very much Real and Now, from the illegal immigration in America that traps and abuses the workers who put food on our tables, to the "company town" factories in China that trap and abuse the workers who put iPhones in our pockets.

I don't know what the answer is, and neither does the Occasional CEO, but I know for sure we won't find it by accepting the situation as it is, just because we, as stockholders, want our companies to make a lot of money for us, and because we, as consumers, want inexpensive food and ever-better, ever-cheaper electronic gadgets.

There's no easy solution, and in casting around for one we just may make situations worse.  As one African leader is reported to have said, "Our people were so poor and hungry they were eating grass.  A big American company came and set up a factory, providing jobs for our people.  The work was long and hard, but our children had food.  But then some other Americans came and looked at the factory, called it a 'sweat shop,' and forced the company to close it down.  Now we have no jobs and no food.  Our children are dying again."

One thing I know:  Nothing will get better if we don't think about it, talk about it, care about it.  Thanks, Eric, for speaking out.

If the workers were slaves we'd be outraged. Yet, when a laborer is simply trapped, used and abused—and not owned—it's easier to overlook the inconvenient truth.

This I believe: When conditions involve loss of human dignity, eventually something gives.  We can hope it’s the emergence of enlightened management, sound government and maybe even a rising middle class.  We can hope it happens sooner rather than later, and we can sometimes even help make it happen.

But it’s hard to think that treating workers like production units—which might yield momentarily breathtaking results—constitutes anything like a long-term national competitive advantage.  It didn’t in Lowell [Massachusetts].  I doubt it will in China, either.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Edit
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