Essay: Recent charges that Gucci China workers faced sweatshop-like conditions expose bigger questions about Chinese society. The pursuit of luxury in itself is not a problem, but its side-effects can be.
BEIJING - The open letter addressed to the top management of Gucci China from its former employees, who resigned en masse last month, ripped the veil off the luxury brand and its working practices. The public suddenly realized that people who work for luxurious brands are not leading a lifestyle that matches their employer's image. They are but ordinary folks who have to work hard like you and me.
Of course, there are reasons why the public has the illusion that those who work for a big name are somehow different. In fact, they often think of themselves as different, and attach the halo of the brand around their own heads. The common arrogance of these luxury brand staff may explain why the Gucci workers didn't gain much sympathy when they resigned over working conditions. The employees say Gucci imposed "sweatshop" conditions on their workers who were forced to stand for more than 14 hours a day, without rest, food or water – and were denied fair overtime pay.
If we consider the Gucci staff to be ordinary working people, then this piece of news can be put back into its original context. Whether in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, masses of fresh graduates from famous universities all work like mad, late into the night, just like the Gucci workers, and get paid a similar salary. In a country where the economy is booming so fast, everyone is obliged to sacrifice their leisure time to ensure the efficient functioning of the entire country. At the same time, the workers themselves are also the beneficiaries of this economic expansion.
The same level of work intensity, of course, goes far beyond Gucci China. In an era when every individual is struggling to survive inflation, who dares say ‘No" to working overtime?
Gucci is not the only prestigious brand that sets up production factories in China. The likes of Prada and Zegna have them too. And each time negative news of these brands gets exposed, threats of boycotts quickly follow. Are luxury goods sinful? Of course not. They are commodities of higher quality. Luxury goods exist to cater to high-end society, where the best materials, the best clocks, the best objects… are required by the royal families, and followed by the rich.
The price of quality
Some famous apparel brands are lured into catering to the mass public, blindly expanding their output at the cost of reducing their quality. But for most luxury brands, they do indeed produce something that lasts longer and endures better. Famous jewelers fly to the other side of the globe just to look for the best gems; fabric manufacturers blend gold or diamond into the wool so that it will better fit the body. Luxury is a wonder itself. It provides choices to those who require higher standards in quality.
And just because certain luxury labels are manufactured in China does not mean the goods are any lower quality. People often misunderstand the Chinese wholesale factories. In fact, many brands have set up factories in China to reproduce according to exactly the same strict European regulatory system. In an honest and sound society, no brand with hundreds of years of history would risk damaging its image by using a cheap "Made in China" label. Instead they choose to use Chinese workers because of the simple laws of economics: China's labor is much cheaper.
Nevertheless, in China, the image of a luxury brand risks being undermined. It is likely to happen to any of these houses. But the fault is with their clients. Most luxury goods are discredited by association; for instance, Hermès now makes people think of Guo Meimei, the scandal ridden Chinese celebrity queen who showed off the real as well as fake luxury goods she owns; while Rolex is considered a brand of the nouveau riche.
A logo that traditionally enjoys an excellent image in other countries is very likely to become a preference of a certain sector of Chinese people when it enters our market. But unfortunately, many of these people do not contribute to a positive public perception. The widening wealth gap and increasing social injustice are making the mass public increasingly hostile to the rich. And luxury is the symbol of the rich.
The public's state of mind is often an elusive target for luxury goods makers. On the one hand, everybody loves to possess these objects themselves; on the other hand, we speculate about others who own them. The problem does not lie in the luxury product, but in the sickness that afflicts our society.
Read the original article in Chinese
photo - gadgetdan