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2006 06 15
Shanghai Missive, Part 3
Image: Howard French
Montreal resident Emmanuel Madan recently travelled to Shanghai to install an artwork called Ondulation. He sent us a series of dispatches about his experiences and we thought these were perfect for our feature on Shanghai.
Vestiges of China's authoritarian history show through everywhere: one day we were sitting on the balcony overlooking the plaza just before lunch time, and we saw all the employees of one of the Chinese restaurants standing at attention, all the red uniforms in the first row, yellow uniforms in the second row, perhaps seven or eight employees altogether, getting a pre-shift pep talk from their supervisor. The lecture must have lasted forty-five minutes, during which time all the employees remained absolutely still in the glaring late morning heat. The pedestrian mall was otherwise completely abandoned. The fountain was being tended by a worker in galoshes, and muzak (a syrupy Chinese-Western hybrid) could be heard blaring across the empty square.
David and I had a conversation at one point, you know the one everyone's having about the growth of Chinese industry and what it means for workers in the West. David's from southern Ontario and says that every person in his family except him is or has been employed by some aspect of the automobile industry. He had met someone the week before in China who's consulting for Chinese car manufacturers, and who had told him that the only thing standing in the way of China coming out with its proverbial "Ford-killer" is intellectual property legalities, but one way or another it won't be long... My response was that what's tragic about the mechanics of economic globalization isn't so much one set of workers losing jobs to another set of workers of a different nationality, but rather, the mind-boggling blow that this shift will deal to the whole culture of job safety which has developed under union auspices over the last century in the West. All that painstaking effort, struggle, and collective action is just so easy to undercut.
Essentially every time we saw anybody doing any kind of work in China, there was something phenomenally hazardous about how they were doing it: putting up drywall partitions or mixing concrete while wearing flip-flops; drilling through concrete road without ear protection; welding without eye protection; climbing up scaffolding and swinging around from rafters without helmets or harnesses, or pray-painting with the most noxious fumes ever without proper vapour masks. And all this is in Pudong, among the wealthiest and most "modern" areas in all of China. I never even set foot near an actual factory.
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