Yes, the headline is a bit facetious, but who, at this point, hasn’t heard about Chip Starnes, the American co-owner of a medical supply company, who was held against his will for five days by his own Chinese employees? Fortunately, Starnes has been released without injury, despite losing nine pounds during the ordeal, in which he was harassed by employees and subjected to some rather unpleasant hospitality. And as with most other news of labor relations coming out of China, many are using this event as another example of why manufacturers need to be moving back to the U.S. as soon as possible. I wouldn’t be so quick to judgment.
For those unfamiliar with the matter, the situation is at once commonplace and bizarre. Starnes is the co-owner of Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, and as part of his duties, he visited the Chinese plant to shutter the plastics division and lay off its 30 employees. So far, a pretty familiar story. After those employees had been sent home, the remaining workers in other divisions — whose jobs were never at risk — began to demand severance pay as well. Now, it’s not entirely clear whether they thought they were being laid off as well, or if greed blinded them, but nevertheless, Starnes got held as a bargaining chip. And it paid off.
Many advocates of re-shoring say that doing business in China is too unpredictable, particularly when it comes to the labor situation, in part because the country’s government simply hasn’t laid out even the most basic of policies, much less the means to vigilantly protect them. Add into that the sheer speed at which the country has become industrialized, and it can be a recipe for situations such as the one Starnes found himself in. And while America is home to major labor strikes all the time, the chances of literally being held hostage by the plant floor staff seems monumentally small, if only because the local SWAT team would be just outside, begging for the go-ahead to bust down the doors.
I’m a champion of re-shoring, naturally, as part of my position on a U.S.-focused publication. Plus, Wisconsin (where the Manufacturing.net office is located) has the second-highest percentage of employees in manufacturing, trailing behind only Indiana, which means that we have a lot at stake, and even more to gain if there will truly be a manufacturing “renaissance.” But I think a lot of the anti-China fervor — or anti-foreign-anything fervor — is a little misplaced, and a little dangerous, considering what got us into this off-shored situation in the first place.
The reality is that almost all businesses make decisions based solely upon the bottom line. Sometimes they seem to act altruistically, but that’s probably because they assigned a dollar amount to the value of being a good “corporate citizen.” A cynical viewpoint, perhaps, but also a realistic one. In that light, I hesitate to make too many bold declarations, riding on the back of the truly awful situation Starnes lived through, in order to trumpet American manufacturing. These decisions need to be made intelligently, not politically, and certainly not on ignorance or misunderstanding of other cultures.
And to say something similar to what happened to Starnes couldn’t happen in the U.S. is a little shortsighted. And even if a kidnapping would be rare in the U.S., we’re not free from dozens of other equally bizarre and potentially dangerous situations, such as mass shootings, which have struck manufacturing plants with tragic consequences. Plus, another industrialized, first-world country has been a spate of these “bossnappings”: France. And while, yes, American culture is quite different from French, let’s not pretend that the practice is relegated only to those in emerging countries.
The truth is, I have a fear about all this fervent, politics-based re-shoring talk: What happens if we experience a re-shoring renaissance, only to see those changes not work in the long haul? Perhaps manufacturers will find that the cost case isn’t truly in their favor, or that the benefits of having “Made in America” goods aren’t as strong as they would have hoped. Truly, the only thing worse than the fundamental loss of American manufacturing due to off-shoring over the last 30 years would be to see everything return stateside, only to reverse course and head back overseas.
There is real merit in ensuring that we don’t simply get caught in a cycle. Of course, it’s impossible to forecast what our economy will look like in 2030, but I’m more certain that kidnappings won’t become so rampant across China that companies will actually have to factor in ransom pay-offs into their bottom line. So, yes, let’s continue the debate about why companies should re-shore manufacturing back to the U.S., whether that’s more skilled labor, producing close to the customer, and a robust infrastructure. I have no doubts that if we continue to rely on the facts of American manufacturing, a great deal of off-shored production will return stateside. 2013 alone has seen an incredible number of stories proving just that.
Let’s not forget that amid all this back-and-forth about the merits of off-shoring or re-shoring, or why it’s more patriotic to manufacture in America, or why China isn’t a safe place to do business, Starnes is getting ready to dive right back into China. If anyone is an expert in factoring bossnapping into the off-shoring equation, it’s him. If he’s going back, it means that we, as a country and a manufacturing locale, are doing something wrong, not him, and that re-shoring isn’t as simple as many would like it to be.
It means we still have a lot of work to do. And when it comes to results, kidnappings are off the table.