The Human Cost of America’s Addiction to Cheap Goods

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"Made in China" Art by Mr. Fish.

As mass consumerism took hold in the United States over the past several decades, Americans became increasingly expectant that the goods available to them would be cheaper than previously imaginable. One of the costs of this phenomenon has been off-shored to factories primarily in China, where factory labor conditions are well known to be grueling. But another, less known fact, is that many goods are actually made by modern-day Chinese slaves in the country’s forced labor camps. Amelia Pang, an investigative journalist and the author of “Made in China,” joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about the human story at the heart of her book, which begins in 2012 with an SOS note found by an Oregonian in a package of KMart Halloween decorations. The journalist follows the thread of the note to its author, Sun Yi, and chronicles the story of how the young engineer went from starting a life with his beloved wife to becoming a political prisoner working in inhumane conditions that produce Americans’ junk. 

Due to a rising awareness in the West about how Uyghurs in Xinjiang are being imprisoned in “re-education” camps, the U.S. Congress is now considering legislation that would ban American companies from purchasing goods made in the Chinese region under the assumption they were produced by forced labor. Pang tells Scheer that Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple have lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, arguing that they have proof that the goods they manufacture in China are not the product of forced labor. The investigative journalist, who spent time in China conducting interviews and reporting on labor camps, warns that much of this “proof” is likely based on shoddy audits that are incomplete and often don’t take into subcontracting and other covert ways forced labor comes into the manufacturing equation. 

“Even if [a product is] from Taiwan, that doesn't necessarily mean much,” explains Pang. “When I was in China visiting the labor camps and following the trucks to see which exporters they were working with, quite a few of them had connections with Taiwanese-owned factories.” 

Scheer urges listeners to read Pang’s book, which he explains isn’t just about cut-and-dry statistics and facts relating to labor practices in China but is really a gripping story about Sun Yi’s tragic life and that of others whose lives were forever changed by labor abuses fueled by Americans’ seemingly insatiable consumption. Listen to the full discussion between Pang and Scheer as they grapple with how American individuals and their government might be able to impact workers’ rights in China and elsewhere through shifts in consumption and trade deals. 



Joshua Scheer