Belated factory notes

What happens to your discarded water bottles in Ethiopia? Crunched up into shards, as it turns out, and shipped to China to be melted into common plastics.

This is a photo from a water bottling plant:


I suddenly feel a shred better about my trail of discarded bottles.

Here is a photo of the factory production line:


This is not a picture of Africa we usually see. Sad-eyed children are more likely to adorn development strategy reports than productive workers.

Frankly, I’m conflicted. As I walked the factory floor, I couldn’t help but think: what miserable work. Labeling bottles eight hours a day, six days a week. Is this development as freedom? It’s hard to see.

I think back. In high school I spent 18 hours a week slinging chicken for Colonel Sanders. Bryan, our humorless manager, was a cross between Hulk Hogan and Frederick Taylor. Steel-eyed, handlebar mustachioed, and six foot three, Bryan would loom over me with a stopwatch until I could break, wash, dip, bread, rack and deep fry three chickens in two minutes.

He could do it in one and a half.

Was I miserable? Not really. KFC paid fifty cents above minimum wage, and on some level I found the work satisfying. (Plus the burn scars on my arms disappeared after about ten years.) Maybe the difference is I saw it as a short spell (two years, in my case) before taking on a more fulfilling career. And the free health care that comes with being a Canadian.

Clearly, comparing a Canadian suburban restaurant to an Ethiopian factory is absurd on many levels. My point, however, is that drudgery may be deceptive. This will be one of the more interesting things to explore in our RCT of unskilled industrial jobs. (We just have to figure out how to measure it.)

More importantly, the factory line may not be fate. The workers I spoke to had bigger plans, and some seemed headed on that path. Whether this happens is, to me, one of the most important questions in the study.

7 thoughts on “Belated factory notes

  1. More and more of these jobs are becoming mechanized. Industrialization was the lever out of poverty for Europe and Asia; but will it be labor-intensive enough to make a difference for Africa? Leaving aside whether factory jobs are desirable, how will Africa be competitive for these jobs as long as Asia has relatively low wages and much better infrastructure?

  2. Ah yes. The choice between the evil, yet stable, factory job or the sinister, and fickle, farming job.

    Stability is one of the most underrated aspects of development. It allows people to plan whereas instability does not. It allows one to save for their children’s future even if their own will be one of drudgery.

    Despite what westerners may think, tedious, boring, and dangerous factory jobs are in many ways better, and preferred by many, over the alternatives (such as being reliant on mother nature) which are usually much worse.

    Glad to see you thinking about this.

  3. I think you suggested a concept to help you measure “drudgery” – bigger plans. Researchers sometimes measure this in a quantitative way with an aspiration ladder…

  4. Chris,
    I regularly assign Diane Wolf’s nice ethnography Factory Daughters (from her fieldwork in Java in the 1980s) in one of my undergraduate development classes. it covers a lot of this ground. There are, of course lots of excellent similar ethnographies.

  5. There are times when we need to get outside of our academic heads. This is one of them. “Drudgery,” as you seem to define it, is how most people even in the developed world choose to earn a living. Bus drivers, factory workers, repairmen, shop managers, and in fact most jobs are ones in which you repeat the same 5 or 6 steps everyday for the rest of your life, or until you get a new job or get promoted at which time you learn to do a different 5 or 6 steps. Sure academics loath such occupations (which is usually why they became academics) but the vast majority of people aren’t nearly so “conflicted.” My brother-in-law manages a Taco Bell and is much more concerned about moving up the corporate ladder than wallowing in philosophical musings about the whether his work is truly “satisfying.”
    Moving to the developing world I think this is even more true. Before we starting getting all conflicted about whether or not these people’s jobs are “satisfying” lets concentrate on simply getting them one.. Thats hard enough for now.

  6. There must be many better solutions as shipping the bottles to China.
    From Addis to Djibouti is 560 km overland and another approx. 10,000 km to Shanghai.

    Plastic bottles can be burned cleanly & for example fuel a power plant. Ethiopia also suffers from a chronic shortage of electricity nowadays.

  7. This made me think of one of James Fallows’ China pieces in the Atlantic. The story he tells (and I imagine there is more rigorous academic work on this somewhere) is one in which young people are drawn from the countryside to labor in the factories of China’s industrial zones, but that doing such labor for a few years allows them to save enough to “graduate” to a higher standard of living and leave the factories. That’s a simplification, but it was something along those lines.