7Sisters in TimeFrom the Farm to the Sweatshop and Beyond

Docility on a Leash

Jiang Lan works eight hours per day, six days per week in the Number 36 yarn factory in Shanghai. Her job is fixing broken yarn. She sits on a hard metal chair that is attached to tracks on the floor in front of a row of spindles. By depressing the pedal at her foot, Lan glides left and right along the tracks, stopping wherever she sees a flashing red light, the signal of broken yarn. With a deft and intricate move of her fingers, she repairs the yarn, then glides left or right to the next flashing light. Lan does this all day, wrapped in the steam and cotton flurries, blanketed by the metal noise. At the end of the day, Lan steps outside to the surprising quiet and walks across the gravel road to the company dormitory.

Yes, she says. She likes her job.

Jiang Lan, of course, is China's comparative advantage. Yet while the sheer number of Jiang Lans, as well as their low wages, are often put forth to explain China's dominance in light manufacturing, the truth is that these economic factors—the supply and price of labor—take us only part of the way toward understanding China's leadership position in this industry. The whole story requires not only that we understand supply and price, terms that have meaning everywhere, but also that we understand Lan's life in China, its limits and its possibilities. Since the rise of industry in eighteenth-century England, ideal workers for low-end textile and apparel ...

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