I work in a warehouse where we receive refrigerators and stoves from manufacturers, perform quality control on them, attach some standards stickers and company logos to them and then sell them as our own products. We are the very definition of a middle-man, and sad will be the day when the retailers and manufacturers realize that they could get by without us. But for the time being we facilitate things well enough to be a profitable business.
In the last year the decision has been made to re-source a substantial portion of our refrigerator models from a Chinese company called Delware. Try as I might I can not find the website for these dudes, but I assure you they exist. Now when I heard that we were going this route I had to ask why; the models to be replaced are high-performing and attractive. I asked my immediate supervisor a few months back and he explained that the one company we have been buying from (a subsidiary of Whirlpool based out of Brazil) is no longer making that model. But then he also explained that they have been systematically jacking the price up every year for the last two decades so we wanted to go with something more cost-effective. So between those two answers I was not really sure what the deal was, though I suspected it had more to do with the latter (cost-savings) than it did with a company discontinuing a reliable and popular product for no apparent reason.
We received some sample units from Delware and I was struck by how ugly and plain they were. Now you may think a fridge is a fridge and you would be right, but you would also be surprised about how important the little details are when you deal with them on a day-to-day basis. Frankly, they looked cheap, and I inquired if they were in fact significantly cheaper. They, of course, were. Next I inquired if they were going to sell for the same price as their Whirlpool predecessors. A resounding “yes!” I assumed naively that this was simple greed. I was wrong. More on that momentarily.
Mulling it over in my head, it occurred to me that if we were sourcing our products from a Chinese company for significantly less money, there might be some of those … whaddya call ’em??? Oh yeah, Human Rights Violations going on at Delware. Never one to be subtle, I walked up to the operations manager at the end of the day and asked him point blank about his trip to China where he discovered this company and toured their facility. I specifically inquired about the working conditions and wages. He said (seemingly, a little uncomfortably) that conditions were “relatively” good there and that the company had a high turnover rate. It didn’t click with me what “high turnover rate” meant, even though he said it like three subsequent times as if the fact that people were constantly quitting/getting fired was somehow supposed to assure me that things were copacetic at Delware. But I trust this dude, so I feigned satisfaction with his words which I didn’t truly understand. It was only after I did some more mulling on the way home that I realized he had told me nothing and that he was probably just regurgitating lines which the company tour-operator had said to him to pacify his conscience while he was touring the plant.
High-turnover rate? The fuck does that even mean? McDonald’s has a high-turnover rate too and its a shitty job. In fact all restaurants typically have high turnover rates because a lot of the positions in restaurants are shitty. In fact, a low turnover rate would typically indicate a better employer, wouldn’t it, as it would indicate a job which people actually want to stay at. The only positive thing a high turnover rate expresses to me is that technically the job is not slavery, because technically the workers can quit whenever they want. So the best thing that our operations manager can say about the ethics of our sourcing is that technically its not produced by slave labour?
In spite of my misgivings I am just a peon in the company structure so my opinion + two quarters doesn’t add up to a dollar. I kind of just kept on living my life. But yesterday while talking with the receptionist during lunch, I heard her say that she wasn’t allowed to tell customers that the fridges are made in China. I asked, “Well what do you tell them?” “I tell them that we are the ‘manufacturer on record’,” she responded. “Diabolical,” I thought. Then I said as much. I asked her about situations where a customer pressed her to explain what manufacturer on record meant. She told me that if any customers were not satisfied with her answers she was supposed to refer them to the owner or ops manager. I was angry (not surprisingly, as I have a tendency to get irate about injustice) that she would be compelled to perpetuate misinformation. I realized this deception related back to the price we were selling the units for: Since we were keeping the same prices we had for the previous models, the customers would hopefully not suspect that we were selling them a shittier product from China => Not just greed, but dishonesty as well. So, if it wasn’t bad enough that we were sourcing product from slighlty-better-than-slavery conditions, now we were denying it outright, or at least putting a glossy veneer of technical language on it. Manufacturer on Record, my ass! We’re a warehouse! We manufacture nothing!
I was mad for a second, and in that second I thought of the owner of the company. I thought about everything I didn’t like about him. This is the kind of guy who spouts off statistics about how the average life expectancy in Canada is increasing and concludes from there that the world must be getting better and better because he can’t see over the fence of his backyard in the rich neighbourhood he lives in. He’s the kind of guy who will say “no vacations til the end of summer” for employees, but then talk excitedly about his upcoming mid-summer vacation; not out of malice but due to a complete lack of tact. This is the kind of dude who will micro-manage the fuck out of every aspect of his company and then call a meeting at the end of the day (delaying the departure of employees) to talk about how his “pep-talks” are really having a positive effect on production. Tis also he who will hold up production so we can do a detailed cleaning of the warehouse so he can give the visiting bankers (who have no interest in the warehouse) a tour of it. Also, during these bank visits he’ll make anyone with a nice car park in the back so the bank doesn’t get the impression he’s paying anyone too much. Now apparently he is also the type of guy to unethically source product and then tell his employees to lie to customers about where its from. His relationship to reality has always been tenuous but now its seems it is will-fully so.
But like I said, I was only mad at him for a second. I mean, is it really his fault?
One thing I have become more and more cognizant of is how this system corrupts people and puts them at odds with others, not just to excel, but simply to survive. Anything I or anyone else gets is necessarily at the expense of someone else. In that paradigm how can you blame someone for playing by the established rules, even if that entails outsourcing and a cavalier attitude toward the truth? Certainly it must be harder to see the flaws in the system too when you’re making a ton of money. So to call this guy a bad person is not accurate. For one thing, I think he makes genuine, if misguided, efforts to do right by his employees. But more importantly, he is playing by the rules we all must play by to some extent. Whereas I try and extricate myself from this game as much as possible, he revels in it and commits 100% to the deception, to the point where he would deceive others. Our respective socio-economic standings are the practical outcome of our various commitments to this deception, or lack thereof.
For his sake, I hope I never have to pick up the phone and speak with a customer who is curious about where their product comes from. For starters, lying doesn’t sit well with me, and second, I’m not getting paid enough to fib.
P.S. To be clear, I don’t object to outsourcing on any patriotic grounds. I don’t think “Buy Canadian” or “Buy American” campaigns are worthwhile because they don’t address structural flaws and they perpetuate xenophobia. Ultimately it won’t be Chinese or Indian or Malaysian people who take all the jobs but an automated assembly line. And that’s the way it should be, as menial, repetitive labour, or “monkey-work” as I call it, is simply a stultifying existence which needs automating. I simply wanted to elucidate upon the dishonesty this system fosters with a practical example.