Years ago, I recall hearing about a conversation between two people on the subject of children's sandals. One person had been lamenting the fact that the shoes she had purchased for a child had come apart relatively quickly. The other, learning that she'd bought the shoes at a discount store, replied, "You get what you pay for."
When the conversation was repeated to me I found it terribly strange. As someone who had tried unsuccessfully to find children's sandals that were not made in China, I knew that the high-end brands and the department store displays all contained sandals made in China, quite possibly manufactured in the same factory where the supposedly "inferior" discount store brand was made. So what made the expensive ones any better? Did the workers get an additional five cents an hour tacked on to their tiny wages when they made the department store shoes? Did that create the incentive for them to sew more diligently? Highly doubtful, in my view--I thought then that the only difference was likely to be the label sewn into the pricey toddler sandal, and I still think so.
Apparently, quite a lot of Americans agree with me.
Though the post-Thanksgiving sales figures have seemed strong, there's no denying that discount stores are doing better than high-end retailers. While I'm sure there are lots of reasons for this, at least one of them has to be that there's no longer any gift-giving stigma associated with giving someone a gift from Wal-Mart or Target, especially if it's an electronic item that retails for more elsewhere. The gift recipient is no longer all that likely to feel slighted if you present her with a toaster from a discount store instead of purchasing the exact same toaster for far more money at a pricey snobby department store. When everything is made in a third-world country, all of it cheaply, and all of it by people who are making less than a dollar or two an hour for their work, it's really no longer the case that you get what you pay for.
Consider the iPod, for instance. After stories broke last year about slave labor conditions inside an iPod factory in China, Apple investigated, promised to crack down on the abuses, and make sure that "only" sixty hours of work a week would be permitted to its employees, many of whom are girls ages sixteen and up. The sixty-hour work week can be set aside during the Christmas rush, of course; and whether the usual approximate wage of sixty dollars a month would be augmented during the overtime periods is anybody's guess. Since the iPods range in price from the $79 Shuffle to the $299 model, it would take more than one month of sixty hour work weeks for an iPod factory employee to earn enough money to purchase even the cheapest model of music player they are building.
Do we get what we pay for? Is the iPod worth the price?
That's just one example, of course. There are factories in Malaysia and Mexico, in India and Indonesia, operating on much the same principle: long hours, low pay. Their workers make high-end retail clothing brands, expensive shoes, jewelry that sells for more than the employees make in a year; they make this year's hot Christmas toy and next year's hot fashion trend. They rarely have a day off; some aren't allowed visitors from outside the factory "compound," and some are charged room and board from their slim wages, just to live on the company premises, a "convenience" that works more to the advantage of the company than the advantage of the worker.
We don't talk about this a lot, in America. We don't really know what to say. We've come to rely on this state of things, and even those of us who are committed to reducing our reliance on these consumer goods are uneasily aware of how many of them we own and use on a daily basis.
In many senses, the situation of high-cost goods being produced at the cheapest possible labor cost is the price of globalism.
And in globalism, as in all else, eventually, you do get what you pay for.