In my Buyers Guide editorial, I decried the unsafe conditions at some Chinese assembly plants after three people were killed and 15 injured in a factory explosion in Chengdu. I chastised Chinese manufacturers for exploiting labor, and I urged the Chinese government to do more to protect hapless workers. I had thought everyone could get behind such a stand, but I was wrong. Some of you support China’s laissez-faire manufacturing climate.
Responding to my editorial, the owner of a machine shop in Kentucky criticized my position. U.S. companies are exporting manufacturing jobs to China to escape watchdog agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he argues. OSHA-mandated guarding on machine tools is expensive and unnecessary, and it decreases productivity.
“A co-worker stopped by my desk one afternoon and 20 minutes later he was dead, killed in a car on his way home,” he writes. “In my 40 years of heavy machining, [only] two people lost hands [in shop-floor accidents]. Why don’t you fix [the problem of traffic accidents] before you run off all U.S. machining?
“China is where it is now because it wants to grow,” he continues. “When it gets to where we are, [you want China to] kill the goose that laid the golden egg, just as we did.”
Accidents happen, my critic seems to be saying, so why not die in a workplace explosion that was entirely preventable? We all have to go sometime. Is this what we’ve come to? Have we become so resentful of government that we envy disreputable Chinese factory owners? Are we so desperate to make a buck that we look back with nostalgia on the days of sweatshops and child labor? If only we had no regulations requiring safe workplaces, clean air or clean water, the United States would still be the center of the manufacturing universe.
Yes, we need to rid the books of burdensome and unnecessary regulations, and we must help, not hinder, businesses to hire and invest. Even so, we cannot afford a laissez-faire attitude. Laziness, ignorance and greed inevitably spoil the soup. Everyone cuts corners. It’s human nature. There are plenty of honest people in business, but it’s the dishonest who influence policy, and we all pay the freight.
Even when regulations are in place, the unscrupulous try to skirt them. I once worked at a factory that processed chemicals. One day, the local water department put some monitoring equipment in the factory’s sewer line for a week. The factory wasn’t being investigated; it was just a routine check.
In response, the plant manager ordered everyone to store waste liquids in empty drums for the week. Equipment was cleaned with twice as much water as necessary, to dilute any residues the sensors might detect. Not surprisingly, the factory passed the water quality test. After the monitoring equipment was gone, all the drums were emptied en masse down the drain.
We absolutely can compete with China and other low-cost labor centers. But, let’s not win a race to the bottom.