04/01/2008 10:16 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

General Electric: Killing Chinese Workers For A Cleaner Environment

I have to admit to a knee-jerk dislike when I hear the name "General Electric". It goes back to the days when the company that claims "we bring good things to life" was deep in the business of producing nuclear weapons, which have a quirky ability to end life. Then, there was the reign of CEO "Neutron" Jack Welch, who got great satisfaction from lopping off the jobs of hundreds of thousands of GE workers and breaking unions---all the while piling up his own great fortune and perks (all of which came to light when his wife rightfully took him to the cleaners in a public divorce when little Jack was off being a very naught boy). Now, I can add this to the list: GE is making a new fortune by poisoning and abusing Chinese workers---and GE is doing this under the guise of "greening" its products.

A report released a few days ago by Policy Matters Ohio investigated production of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) at a plant in China in which GE has a significant stake. It's a great notion to replace the energy-sucking incandescent light bulbs with CFLs but what is the price?

CFLs contain mercury, like other fluorescents, in order to function. Mercury is a well-known toxin, and mercury vapor can cause serious damage to the central nervous system. Though the amount of mercury in a CFL is small, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends opening a window and leaving the room for at least 15 minutes before beginning clean-up of a broken bulb.

Yet workers at the Topstar plant do not get "a detailed account of work dangers" as their contracts stipulate, receive little safety training, and often do not know basic facts about factory safety. The majority of workers interviewed told researchers they had no idea that the company was using mercury, or how to protect themselves. Told the meaning of the character for mercury, or gong, they said there were many plastic barrels on which "discarded objects containing gong" was written in red. The barrels were filled with CFLs and often were open or not properly sealed.

Experienced workers end up with swollen fingers from repeatedly pricking themselves with electronic components they are plugging in. Workers reported that when they finish their shifts, they ache all over and their legs have gone numb. One veteran worker said, "Ah, after more than a year [here], I am more or less numb all over and have become a machine!" Other workers interviewed made similar comments.

On top of the health violations, the plant:

...violates numerous provisions of China's labor law at its plant in Xiamen, Fujian Province,

• Requiring work hours that are longer than the permitted maximum average in 2007 of 203.4 hours a month;

• Providing no pay stubs, so workers can't tell if they are being correctly paid;

• Not paying overtime for work in excess of 8 hours a day or on the sixth day of work each week, which under Chinese law is to be a day of rest; and

• Mandating that workers who quit without permission forfeit a month's wages.

These violations of Chinese labor law also infringe GE's own corporate policies, which call for the company to obey local laws and expect suppliers to "comply with laws and regulations governing minimum wages, hours of service and overtime wages for employees." Most of them also contravene the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct of leading electronics companies.

I'm going to guess that the top brass at GE would be shocked, shocked to hear about these abuses. I'm even going to believe that they don't consciously know that Chinese workers are probably dying or will live shorter lives because of their exposure to deadly chemicals.

But, this is how the wonders of global capitalism and so-called "free trade" operate. Create partnerships with far-away companies who do the daily dirty work of policing workers. That guarantees that Chinese workers don't show up as faces in the spreadsheets of GE that show increased "efficiency" and "lower prices". It is all very distant and invisible. And no one holds GE executives accountable. And, then, GE (like its other corporate counterparts like Wal-Mart) can promote its wonderful contributions to the American lifestyle because, praise the lord, we are now more "efficient" and we benefit from "lower prices".

This is one of the challenges we face with "corporate greening" efforts. What exactly is a "green" job and what price will workers pay for a cleaner environment?