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Lesson Plan: The Ethics of Outsourcing to China

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OVERVIEW
In this lesson, students will explore the business ethics related to American companies outsourcing manufacturing to Chinese factories with unsafe and unfair labor practices. The class will first observe conditions for two migrant workers who labor in a Chinese garment factory. Students will then research and discuss whether or not American companies have a responsibility to ensure favorable labor practices in the factories they engage to manufacture their products.

The video clip used in this lesson is from the film Last Train Home, which shows the challenges shared by the more than 130 million migrant workers in China. Please note that this film is in Chinese with English subtitles.

For more information on labor practices in China, please see the Resources section of this lesson.

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OBJECTIVES
By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Describe and assess the living and working conditions of two Chinese migrant workers.
  • Define the term "outsourcing."
  • Explain arguments and provide examples related to whether or not U.S. companies that outsource their manufacturing have a responsibility to use factories with safe and fair working conditions.
  • Decide which arguments represent their personal points of view.
  • Refute one of the points made during the class discussion.

GRADE LEVELS
9-12

SUBJECT AREAS
Economics, Business Education, Geography, International Studies, Social Studies, World History, Current Events

MATERIALS

  • Internet access and equipment to show the class online video and conduct research
  • A world map and a political map of China

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
One 50-minute class period

FILM CLIP
Clip: "The World's Largest Human Migration" (length 7:38)
This clip begins at 1:00 with people running through a tunnel and on-screen text that reads, "There are over 130 million migrant workers in China." It ends at 8:38 with the statement, "We don’t even know what to say to the kids."

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ACTIVITY

1. Use a world map to point out where China is located. Explain that China has more than 130 million workers who migrate to jobs in urban areas so they can support their families back home. Tell students that they are going to watch a video clip that shows two such migrant workers — a couple that works in a garment factory in Guangzhou, a city in Guangdong province. Use a political map of China to show the class this area. Explain that this couple has two children, but the children are being raised by their grandmother in the family's home village in Sichuan province. Point out this province on the map so the class can see the distance between where the parents live and where children live. Explain that the children were unable to migrate with their parents because in China access to public benefits, such as education and health care, is linked to one's place of birth.

2. Show students the video clip "The World's Largest Human Migration" (length 8:38). Focus student viewing by having students take notes on the working and living conditions at the factory where the couple works in Guangzhou.

3. After watching the clip, ask students to describe the working and living conditions they observed. Do they find these conditions acceptable? Why or why not?

4. Explain that American companies such as Walmart, Apple, Nike, Mattel and others rely on Chinese factories to manufacture their products. These companies do not own the factories themselves, but instead pay Chinese companies to produce goods according to their specifications. Contracting business tasks to an outside company is called "outsourcing." Low costs for labor and production provide economic incentives for American companies to outsource manufacturing to Chinese factories. However, human rights organizations say such cost savings come at the expense of Chinese workers, who often face wages below the legal minimum, unpaid overtime, unsafe working conditions and other labor issues.

5. Tell students that they are going to discuss the business ethics related to this question: "When U.S. companies outsource their manufacturing, do they have a responsibility to use factories that provide safe and fair environments for their workers?" Divide the class in half and have one group seek support for the affirmative response to this question and the other the negative response. Some recommended resources for students to examine include:

Affirmative

Bloomberg Businessweek. Overseas Sweatshops Are a U.S. Responsibility."
The "pro" section of this article makes the case that U.S. companies should care about worker rights in overseas factories.

China Labor Watch. "Company Codes of Conduct."
This page provides a list of links to corporate codes of conduct for Nike, Disney, Walmart and others.

China Labor Watch. "Reports."
Reports review numerous undercover factory investigations in China and give examples of abuses in various industries.

Chu, Kathy, and Michelle Yun. "Wages, Conditions Improve as Workers in China Form Unions." USA Today, November 19, 2010.
This article describes efforts by Chinese workers to improve their own conditions.

Democracy Digest. "China Boosting State-run Labor Unions to Dampen Militancy?"
China's government plans to unionize 65 percent of the country's foreign-invested enterprises by the end of 2011.

Ravich, Madeline. "Can International Attention Improve Factory Conditions?" Qn.
This article argues that efforts by U.S. companies to improve factory conditions make a difference.

China Labor Watch. "Reports."
Reports review numerous undercover factory investigations in China and give examples of abuses in various industries.

Rosoff, Robert J. "Beyond Codes of Conduct." The China Business Review.
This article points out limitations of corporate codes of conduct and factory inspections and outlines alternative strategies for addressing labor rights problems in China.

United Nations. "Global Compact Principle Two."
This principle describes actions that businesses can take to ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.

Negative

Bloomberg Businessweek. "Overseas Sweatshops Are a U.S. Responsibility."
The "con" section of this article argues that protecting worker rights in China is not the responsibility of U.S. companies.

FoxNews.com. "Third World Workers Need Western Jobs."
This article makes the case that poor countries benefit from jobs provided by U.S. companies.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl Wudunn. "Two Cheers for Sweatshops." The New York Times Magazine, September 24, 2000.
This article claims that sweatshops provide a path to prosperity for impoverished workers.

Tofani, Loretta. "American Imports, Chinese Deaths." The Salt Lake Tribune, October 21-24, 2007.
This series argues that China needs to figure out its own labor issues.

Additional Background

POV. The Migrant Worker in China.

This POV page offers general information on migrant workers and their earnings, Chinese policies that make life difficult for migrants and working and living conditions for migrant workers.

Consider assigning these websites or additional research to specific students so that a variety of resources are consulted. Give students 15 minutes or so to review the information assigned to them and identify key arguments for their sides of the question.

6. Organize a "fishbowl" discussion by moving student desks to form an outer circle with two rows of three desks each facing each other in the center of the circle. Invite or assign three students from each side of the discussion question to take the seats inside the circle, or "fishbowl." Only students inside the fishbowl are allowed to speak.

7. Pose the discussion question and ask a student in the fishbowl to respond. Students in the fishbowl should continue to discuss the topic, presenting arguments and examples from their assigned points of view. Once a student in the fishbowl has spoken, another student on the same side of the discussion can tap that student's shoulder. The student in the fishbowl must then move to the outside observation seats and allow the new student to take his or her place. The new entrant may not be tapped until he or she has spoken at least once. Continue this format, refocusing the discussion as needed, until everyone has had an opportunity to participate in the discussion.

8. As students in the outer circle listen to the discussion, each one should write down the two or three points with which he or she personally agrees most strongly. Each should also briefly refute in writing one of the arguments made in the fishbowl. Collect these papers at the end of class.

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EXTENSIONS AND ADAPTATIONS

Explore the online video, resources and lesson plans for other PBS and POV films relating to China and labor issues:

  • Maquilapolis: City of Factories: Shows female factory workers organizing to change labor conditions in Mexico near the U.S. border.
  • Made in L.A.: Tells the story of three Latina immigrants who battle a Los Angeles sweatshop to win basic labor protections.
  • China Blue: Reveals labor conditions in a blue jeans factory in China, where 17-year-old Jasmine and her friends work around the clock for pennies a day.
  • Up the Yangtze: Explores lives transformed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam -- the biggest hydroelectric dam in history -- along China's Yangtze River.
  • The Learning: Tells the stories of four women who migrate from the Philippines to Baltimore, Maryland to teach school so that they can improve the financial situations of family members back home.

Compare the conditions that led to U.S. labor reform in the Progressive Era to labor issues facing China today. Have the class read resources, such as Labor in Progressive Era Politics and Child Labor in U.S. History. Discuss the conditions for workers in the United States during that time period. What actions were taken to improve conditions? By whom? How did the labor of those in poverty transform the United States into a powerful industrial nation? Next, have students study more about the plight of migrant workers in China using websites in the Resources section. What similarities and differences are there between late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. labor conditions and those in modern China? Are there any patterns of behavior shared by business owners and workers in both countries and time periods? What might account for such patterns? Have students summarize their findings in comparative essays.

Evaluate the reporting of modern-day "muckrakers." Have small student groups examine undercover factory investigations, such as China's Youth Meet Microsoft and reports by China Labor Watch. Identify the people who conducted each investigation and when, why and how they did so. What evidence is provided to support assertions about factory conditions? Do the investigations seem credible? Why or why not? What is your reaction to the reports' findings? Will they change your behavior in any way? Explain. Ask students to capture their analyses in slide presentations that they share with the class. Alternatively, consider having the class compare and contrast a Chinese factory environment described in one undercover investigation with the living and working conditions detailed in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

Explain the concept of "outsourcing" in a rap. Show the class the rap video Economic Breakdown Song for inspiration. Then, challenge students to create their own rap videos about "outsourcing" that cover what it is, advantages, disadvantages, whether to outsource locally or in foreign countries and so on. When creating rhymes, they may find How Outsourcing Works a helpful resource.

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RESOURCES

Bloomberg Businessweek. "Secrets, Lies and Sweatshops."
This 2006 investigation showed that in the face of efforts by some U.S. companies to protect worker rights with labor rules and inspections, Chinese factories have just gotten better at concealing abuses.

CIA. "World Factbook: China."
This profile of China includes information on its economy, geography, people and more.

PBS NewsHour. "China Clamps Down on Protests in Restive Worker Region."
This July 1, 2011 blog post provides a brief summary of the Chinese government's dealings with labor issues.

POV. "The Migrant Worker in China."
POV provides historical information on China's economy, statistics on migrant workers and their earnings, details on Chinese policies that make life difficult for migrants and information on working and living conditions.

Rosoff, Robert J. "Beyond Codes of Conduct." The China Business Review.
This article describes factory conditions in China and outlines strategies that foreign companies can adopt to address labor rights problems.

Tofani, Loretta. "American Imports, Chinese Deaths." The Salt Lake Tribune, October 21-24, 2007.
This 2007 investigative newspaper series describes working conditions in Chinese factories, some of them hazardous.

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STANDARDS
These standards are drawn from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

RH.9-10.9Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

SL, 9-10, 11-12.1 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

SL, 9-10, 11-12.1 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.

SL, 9-10.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence clearly, concisely and logically, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and task.

SL, 11-12.4 Present information, findings and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed and the organization, development, substance and style are appropriate to purpose, audience and a range of formal and informal tasks.

W.9-10, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.

W.11-12.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.


These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

Business Education
Standard 32: Understands the social, cultural, political, legal and economic factors and issues that shape and impact the international business environment.

Standard 33: Understands the obligations of businesses to the government and the community.

Standard 34: Understands the role of ethics in the business world.

Standard 35: Understands ethical concepts, including integrity and confidentiality, as related to the business environment.

Economics
Standard 1: Understands that scarcity of productive resources requires choices that generate opportunity costs.

Standard 2: Understands characteristics of different economic systems, economic institutions and economic incentives.

Geography
Standard 3: Understands the characteristics and uses of spatial organization of Earth's surface.

Standard 9: Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.

Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Standard 11: Understands the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface.

Standard 18: Understands global development and environmental issues.

Language Arts
Standard 7: Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of informational texts.

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

World History
Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability and peace in an interdependent world.

Standard 45: Understands major global trends since World War II.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.





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Remarkable... Fan has visual panache — Last Train Home has some gorgeously composed shots — but he also has something that can’t be taught: The patience and understanding to allow a family to tell their heartbreaking story in their own way...”

— G. Allen Johnson,
San Francisco Chronicle