NEW YORK, Apr 12, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- A group of factory workers in Kaiping, China, donated Rmb 1,400 -- about $170 -- to the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. This is a tiny amount when set against the millions of dollars of aid that governments, large corporations and individuals have given to help the tsunami survivors. The large gifts have been duly publicized and are commendable. But I am more impressed with the smaller contribution of the factory workers.
Kaiping isn't a big place, especially by Chinese standards, but it gives me hope for the future. With just half a million residents, Kaiping takes about two hours to get to, southwest from Guangzhou -- or so I am told, because I haven't been there yet. Kaiping is the origin of a half-million Chinese emigres. It is also famous for its local Bank of China branch, where the manager succeeded in embezzling more than $500 million. Compared with that, $170 is tiny.But the difference is that the $170 was earned honestly by hard work and that the workers organized themselves to take this money out of their own pockets and send it on to hard-hit strangers. The amount represents an average of about 42 cents per worker at the factory (most workers contributed) or about two percent of their week's wages.
The factory manager, Mr. Zhang, took two of the workers to the local civil affairs bureau so they could bring the money in person. The bureau staff told them they were the first group of workers to have brought in a donation, and added that they were probably the first workers' group in China to do this (an internet search turned up no other examples). Many Chinese individuals donated more than $12 million to the tsunami survivors. The unusual thing is that at the Kaiping factory the workers donated as a group.
Consider that Chinese factory workers are typically migrants who travel thousands of miles to their jobs, returning home only for the New Year. They are separated from their families and work long hours to make as much money as possible to send home. As migrants they are not entitled in the factory location to government services that they would get in their hometown. Their wages have grown very little, though China's economy has been growing by 8 percent or 9 percent and the Guangdong Province economy (of which Kaiping is part) has been growing by close to twice that. The workers' small donation is significant because it indicates that they have interests beyond survival and sending money home. Having heard about a tragedy in another place from fellow workers or from television or at an Internet cafe, they are willing to dig into their pockets to share what little they have.
What accounts for this worker altruism? I asked Martin Ma, who has visited the factory on behalf of Social Accountability International, a nonprofit group that has been helping to train workers and managers regarding implementation of the SA 8000 workplace standard. Ma thinks a key factor in the Kaiping workplace is Mr. Zhang himself, because he tirelessly seeks to improve working conditions -- with the goal of attracting good workers and reducing absenteeism. The Kaiping factory gets Timberland's top marks for workplace conditions among factories that make its products.
Timberland's CEO, Jeffrey B. Swartz, grandson of the company's founder, has publicly embraced corporate responsibility goals, with the corporate mission of "doing well and doing good." The company has been a generous corporate giver, matching employee gifts to charities, and since the tsunami has devoted a significant portion of its web site home page (timberland.com) to advertising appeals for tsunami assistance.
The Economist magazine doesn't agree with the idea of mixing business and altruism. Its Jan. 20, 2005 issue took a curmudgeonly view of gifts by multinational corporations to the tsunami survivors out of profits that it argues should be passed on to their shareholders. But when management inspires workers to give away their own money to help survivors of a catastrophe, as was the case in Kaiping, it's hard to see how even a pre-enlightenment Ebenezer Scrooge could find fault.
The Kaiping workers' donation was small but carries a big message. Better workplace conditions in factories have been associated with higher worker productivity, higher-quality products and lower staff turnover. They also allow workers to begin to think of problems that go beyond their immediate survival. This is of importance to the rest of the world. As China grows economically, it also grows politically. The Kaiping story gives me reason to hope that out of enlightened leadership in China's factories today may flow future leaders to help face the intransigent economic and political problems facing the world of today and tomorrow. ■