tv Virginia Festival of the Book - Alec Mac Gillis and Amelia Pang CSPAN July 9, 2021 7:14am-8:04am EDT
daughter by terrorists. watch american history tv on saturday and booktv every sunday on c-span2. and now from the virginia festival of the book in charlottesville, a lek mcgillis and amin japanning -- amelia pang. >>c alex macgillis, author of" fulfillment: winning and losing in a one-click america," is a senior reporter for propublica. he is also the author of a 2014 biography of mitch mcconnell, and he live ares in baltimore. -- lives in baltimore. amelia pang, author of "made in china: a prisoner, an sos letter and the hidden cost of america's cheap goods," is a journalist for publications such as mother
jones and the new republic. she lives near washington d.c. our moderator today, nelson camilla sanchez, is director of the international human rights law clinic at the uva school of law. his research focuses on justice in post-conflict scenarios, land governance and peace-building and corporate accountability for human rights violations. alec, amelia, cam low, thank you for joining us. camilo, it's all yours. >> thank you very much, jane, and thank you, alec and amelia, for these fantastic books. it's been a pleasure to read your work. i think these books are not only important and timely, so i'm
very glad for you to be in the process of doing this research to get the books out and joining us tonight for the panel. finish and i have a couple of questions, and i'm going to take some other questions from our attendees tonight. and let me start by asking about the process of conceiving the books. at what point and how did you realize that all of those hours of research were book material? that you had enough that was screaming to be written about, what are your books about? why don't we start with alec? >> sure. well, thank you, camilo. i'm very glad to be here. thanks to the festival for
organizing this. for me, the book actually began not about amazon, it's often thought of as a book about amazon, but it began about the growing gaps between places in america. i'm a reporter who's spent a lot of time around the country, and i just have grown increasingly concerned, even alarmed by the disparities that i saw between winner take all cities and left behind towns. and i have been wrestling with this for years thinking about how to write about it, how to capture it in a book. and what i finally decided to do was to frame it around amazon, to use amazon as a lens and these glaring regional divides. >> okay. amelia? >> yes. i started reading alec's book, and itta is absolutely gripping, fascinating and reporting and recommend everyone to read it. so i'm the author of "made in china." i'm really excited to be here tonight. thank you so much for the introduction, camilo.
so, you know, the main narrative that really spoke to me when i was doing research about all the different chinese sos letters written by prisoners who had ended up in the u.s. and other democratic countries, i found this one particular letter, storyr particularly unforgettabe because it was written by a political prisoner, and he had been making what was halloween decorations, these decorative gravestones that you hang. it's really a trivial product that you could hang on a lawn, or you might use it as a decoration for a children's halloween party. but it was actually manufactured in a chinese gulag where there were very much real graves all
places your book fantastically reconstructs it's kind of behind the scenes, reconstruction of commerce. will help take us to different cities, regions, and countries. i am interested in that. why don't you tell us more about the book, merger books take us to and why? all the way to china. >> yes my books start actually
with that average american consumer name is julie she is a mother of two. she's actually working on decorating her child's halloween party. when she comes across as very cheaply made of styrofoam. it actually had sat her start for two years before sure number to open it. it's one of those thing someone had purchased because it was insanely cheap, too good of a deal to pass on. such a bargain deal. but nobody actually had a real need for it. sat in storage for two years before she she even remembered she had it. she finally opened it she was shocked to receive an sos letter written by the political prisoner of china who'd made in manufactured this very product in a labor
camp. the book tells his story, how he was abandoned in a camp but more importantly what were the problems in our supply chain that make it really easy for things manufactured and labor camps the end up selling at a kmart in portland, oregon. stream xo fulfillment as we all about geography. that is how the book was conceived of a portrait of the entire landscape of our country and how things have kind of sorted out within that landscape. it does not go overseas but does not go to the source of the product as a millions book does raise a writer utterly harrowing. i thought i knew about these things but i did not really. that is so startling and stout needs to be reckoned with. i really urge people to read it.
the whole side of the geography. really endeavors to take you all the way from the headquarters city of amazon, and now washington d.c. brady city center become hyper prosperous in their success to the point where they're unaffordable for many residents. longtime residents been displaced, terrible congestion on most utopian and of inequality take all cities. the towns and cities of become almost the pantry for our delivery economy where workers are make 13, 14, $15 an hour sorting the goods, packing them and sending them on. to govern saddling deceit to warehouse it is like baltimore, dayton ohio, and data how you meet a young man who makes cardboard boxes like
the very bottom of that gymnastic chain making cardboard boxes. you meet truck drivers in southeast ohio. you kinda go all the way up the ladder. when this amazon tecra drawing economy sorting out of cities and towns were not just been earned urban and rural left behind cities for the something about this new economy that we have no that is created gaps between cities on the scale we have never seen before. it is really unhealthy for both ends of the spectrum really. stomach and similarly, the one click economy is intended to eliminate interaction. it is in fact a measure of
success. about something i did not have a talk to anyone. no intervening. but this book not only challenge historic and the voices more importantly have this apparently humongous lee e-commerce model. tell us more about the people you encounter. >> rights. a lot of these regular factories are accompanied like a walmart or kmart source from senate factor. a lot of times are very rural workers who are very far away from their families.
due to the ways the companies with these relationships with these factors put a lot of times action on give them enough time or enough money to make the products in-house and actually pay real workers. so the factors have to subcontract work secretly subcontract the work a lot of forced labor facilities. to meet the deadlines. in these types of labor camps a lot of the detainees were, most of them were never received any kind of sentencing and a court. most are not have access to a lawyer most of the time. they were held there arbitrarily for an indefinite amount of time.
and a lot of them are political dissidents, pro activists, ethnic minorities like uighurs and tibetans. in the civil rights lawyers that try to bravely defend these people, a lot of times these are the people that end up in labor camps doing 15 -- 20 hours of manufacturing work and not paid for it at all. >> you do elaborate on the religious minorities. i wonder if you talk more about them and why? >> yes. these camps are not necessarily always lucrative because they are managed usually by security bureau rather than actual businessmen. i knew when you have business
training. so the chinese alphabet has to subsidize 70s camps. with a lot of money to continue operation. but the why these camps exist for the most part is there extremely useful ways for the chinese government to silence certain demographics that they see as a threat. whether it's political dissidents pro-democracy activists, or these ethnic minorities the uighurs you probably heard about. there are a large number of them, millions of them big round up in these types of camps. short answers to to this question is for many years they have been living under pretty oppressive conditions and the chinese government was initially worried that was a group that might revolt. and then there's also religious groups that have a pretty good ability to organize large protests in china.
and underground christians, you know it's a wide variety of different demographics. >> and alec? >> so much of fulfillment is about that loss of human interaction. and the loss of community that we now experience in the one click economy. one of my chapters the first chapter is community. it's a loss about community in one city. in that case in seattle. but throughout the book you have people who are struggling now because they've lost that kind of interaction part i'll give two main examples two of my favorite characters in the book, one is a former steelworker in baltimore who spent more than 30 years working at a huge deal bill outside of baltimore at a place called sparrows point.
i was at one point the largest steel mill in the entire world. the whole company town five -- 69 people living in this country town that was all wiped completely away is now been repaired placed by a logistics park whole bunch of places gray found a gentleman who worked 30 years at the steel mill, incredibly difficult strenuous dangerous work but loved it because it had purpose and a sense of community and a sense of fellowship and camaraderie. then after the steel mill closed went to work in the amazon warehouse there. making less than half of what he made at the steel mill. the work was not as dangerous of course. was incredibly isolated and alienating. he just could not hack it. it was so utterly -- mickey felt so alone. felt completely alone on the
job. none of that kind of fellowship that he had at the steel mill pretty finally quit after just a few years. i was talking recently to another former steelworker at the mill who lives right nearby. on the fact he noticed the workers of the warehouse now when they are leaving their shifts go screaming out of the warehouse. just flying out in their cars. the driving so fast they've had to put biggest speed bumps into the complex and try to slow people down. it's as if people are just desperate to get out of there. there's absolutely no sense of community or fellowship there. you do your shift your monotonous eyes letting job to get the heck out of get home. where's back in the day of course the workers would roll out of the steel mill as a bunch, as a crew roll into the bar of the diner whatever it might be.
small business owners in el paso. people who run small office supply companies in el paso. essentially think about the office except it's in el paso not scranton. these are people running small businesses with 12 or 15 who sell office-supply local governments and school districts. but pride themselves on service they provide the human interaction with their customers. i'm a customer call up border patrol i ordered thousands of the wrong kind of batteries or thousands of the wrong kind of pens for about a from someone else and so sorry can you please help me out i'll lose my job if i can get help here. "they help them out. there customer.
there being pressured by amazon to simply start selling on the amazon marketplace as third-party sellers. i got the local governments in these schools say it will just buy from you on amazon. that means a course amazon's going to take a 15% cut at least from that transaction and that middleman transaction. will get routed little to the one click said that direct interaction between office-supply the local office by company and the buyer. the business owners have talked about how much that bothered them not just the cut there losing but they just knew that this new arrangement was going to cost the community in terms of tax revenue. the gristle that holds the community together. such a big part of what's being lost right now.
>> there are two movies that came to my mind during the book. if you join american factory and. [inaudible] bridget going to love this book. there's a very aversive statement, fulfillment this idea of the winner takes all. and that motto. that model is indivisible we cannot do anything about it, just the way it is. take it from a quote we say things like amazon behaves the way it does because it is the only way for the business. so for him not about greed is about survival instincts,
right? even if we accept that is the nature, it is a given. i had his question in my mind. i am a human rights lawyer. what is the role of the government in all of this? this is a radical transformation of many social fears. but the role of the government. in the same thing for may in china, right? you see these agree just abuses you think of how we do this, right? what should government do for good or for bad, and maybe military start with how speaks of the expression?
>> yes, i've book who definitely a lot of failures of the u.s. government in addressing this issue despite the agreements of what china does spread this includes the last administration. although trump got praise for china there's a lot more that he could have done. for instance one key legislation that should have passed a really should pass as soon as possible if we do care about human rights and as a country as the weaker force labor prevention act but what that would do is and all products from the region. overwhelming amount of hard evidence that there is a high concentration of forced labor camps.
it's independently to set them to ensure their products are not being manufactured by forced laborers. they will be really impactful. that is an area that china has invested a significant amount of funds in developing. you're doing is a major trading partner in that region. it could really push china to rethink its policy towards uighurs and maybe even the larger forced labor issue if it worlds not one to stand for this and all their trading partners are not going to stand for this. unfortunately the act is really stalling. it was reintroduced the house the consumer gets passed. but as he rolled the u.s. government can play and has yet to play.
>> i see two main avenues for the government or policy structural change to address this problem. what is unfolding now in alabama where there is an election happened which is pretty incredible. it's happening a large amazon warehouse in alabama. the historical echo there it's best known for the british engineer who invented the steelmaking process. as a steel region in alabama. now it's like baltimore it's like a warehouse area. got a union election there. if you could see where houses start to organize, that we pretty extraordinary. that will go some ways towards improving conditions come proving this kind of work pretty set us on the historical arc that was sought
last century. those steel jobs are very low paid those workers are badly traded until they got the unions and in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. that made a big difference. we start to see that happen now in the warehouse realm be a very big deal. the elections can happen freely and fairly. the fact president biden spoke out as he did a week or two ago on that point was a very big deal. the other area where the government has a much bigger role to play as an antitrust. one big reason for this regional inequality is that fulfillment is about is economic concentration. to put it very bluntly one reason you have this huge gap between cities and towns is
that business and commerce that used to be kind of dispersed all around the country, and various sectors is not sucked, who heard and drawn into only a handful of places because the economy is so dominated by a handful of companies. the media ad revenue that used to be spread all around the country from various newspapers and tvs is set now sucked into the bay area. we have two companies ago on facebook and control more than 60% of that revenue. reach out money and commerce used to be spread all around the country. the mom and pop stores, department stores, regional department stores is now increasingly kind of drawn into amazon and the cities were amazon headquarter. and so for the governor now kind of atrophy and approached a monopoly kind of atrophy to
re- engage on the score be a very big deal. the scientist might actually happen now. the biden administration has made some appointment's promising in this regard per there's even a sense this is an area where you could have bipartisan consensus. both parties have expressed concern about the tech giants. they're coming from different motivations but there is a possible common ground here. that's one reason amazon put a second headquarters in washington d.c. new right now the main threat is more from the federal government then it is other corporate rivals. >> very much the chapter on washington d.c. and how they intend date created their own firm. which i think when we check
how. it's something real. it's how much pressure we get from this. were moving to her audience questions, i wanted to just talk a little bit about our role as users, as buyers, as consumers of these cheap products crazy cheap halloween basket that was don't really need. , actually said maine in china grounded on record. that knowing our actions have dire consequences.
buying untold merchandise. is something we just cannot help it. but what richard says about human nature, about our witnesses about this phase of depression what do you tell about human nature found that our brains light up when we see a really cheap price for a product really wants. we feel like we're getting a big bargain deal for some studies showing during the critical moments leading up to a consumer's decision to buy a product or not there's usually
two competing groups of consideration. one is the price and quality for it how much these kind of personal decisions on the other group unfortunately the way the mind works is only enough room in our space enough space in our brains for one to take hold as we are buying products. and there's another study found that an endnote about lives it's particularly studied the counterfeit products.
if you write it before you make the decision to buy than most often they will choose not to buy the product or they would choose to sacrifice their own desires to make an ethical choice. on this phenomenon according to the researchers only lasted a couple minutes up to a half an usually and that we forget. are hopeful for change because we are learning more about just horrific a lot of these labor camps are, i feel confident that more and more people are going to show the hold that information at the forefront of their brain for a longer and longer period of time. bounces extremely prevalent
sexual abuse. to enforce labor part when they do not do forced labor their expensing sexual violence. i've also talked to a lot of factory owners and factory managers we just cannot realistically meet the low prices these companies demand from us. and that decisions that demand from us. those are factors price in the production deadline put a lot of these factors are things that are companies can control. and that we as consumers can control us are pushing our companies to do better. so it made in china is ultimately about empowering
consumers how to make more informed, ethical purchases. and another spent a lot of really depressing topics during this talk redo it to highlight some key things we should start looking for an hour favorite brand sustainability or corporal responsibility pages. i'll be find out our favorite brands are not revealing certain key information that may signify whether they're using forced labor in the supply chain. that we should call them out for and push them to do better in terms of transparency. i hope viewers can take away that made in china book about hope and change. >> i found those of the book incredibly helpful. very specific and concrete in terms of what can be done.
i thought very much directed at the consumer. i do believe we all have agency. sr these large structural forces and systemic forces. yes the economy is changing all these different ways. as a consumer and as a citizen to make certain choices. our role is how the audience in my book is highly educated urban, metro, probably liberal leaning american maybe buys quite a bit of stuff on amazon and does not think too much about it. the book is meant to kind of open their eyes. get them to think harder what's behind the one click. i have to say i am even more worried about this now than it was say a year ago. the pandemic has greatly,
greatly accelerated with the book describes with the shift to a one quick way of life recently cannot overstate how much amazon has grown in this last year. it is astonishing. they've had to hire 500,000 more people not to count drivers with the huge orders. orders are up by 40% year-over-year. stocks are up 80% basis personal fortune up $86 billion just in the year. they've had to build 50% more warehouse space. it is just a fact that for a lot of us the one quick purchase that before was something we may begin with the little bit of compunction, a little bit of stigma loss that stigma this year because it was seen as something we were doing to bend the curve, to flatten a curve. a lot of public-health mandates mandates. we could do it righteously. and i do worry -- i was struck
book, a really good -- good way to start realizing what we're doing and how to take action, and there is another question if an act -- shared the sentiment that it is not that we can just completely unplug. some of us depend on certain technology or, say, for example, those of white us who depend on- there is any way to search for brands that with relatively slight change any way we can try to find those? did you come across those either companies or places in which we can search for those doing
better than others? >> unfortunately i have to say i think the way that most companies do business with china and the way that they investigate their factories in china, i don't really think there's any company out there that could safely guarantee consumers there isn't any forced labor in the supply chain because for the most part the quality of the audits that companies are doing for their chinese factories are really weak. they're really cursory audits that are unable to detect something as complicated, hidden -- to forced labor a lot of the times and this includes -- this especially the case of amazon who doesn't even do audits most of the time. they say they strive to do audits but they really very little information about which suppliers are actually auditing
or what they find. when i was in china in early 2019 to do research for the book i spent time visit thing camps, talking to guards to confirm there were -- the prisoners were manufacturing products and exporting it, and i followed the trucks that left the camps to suppliers and they were working will all kind exporters, including an official apple supplier and these factories made all kinds of products from not only apple products and also these pet products, and bike brakes. a wide range of products. and so when i looked at the customs records to see who was picking them up, you can -- it is a pretty long complicated list of middlemen they go through before it ends up at a
company like amazon or target or any of them. but it does have the name of the product, the name of the brand, a lot of the times and if you google it comes 'everywhere. they're still on amazon most of the time. i don't know if that particular truck i followed was sending products that would end up on samson but comes to show -- up on amazon but a lot of the products you're finding on amazon could have an origin in a chinese labor camp, and they're not really doing any kind of audit to verify the quality of those factories and what their sourcing practices are. so maybe what we can do as consumers is start asking companies to reveal more about their auditing practices, especially amazon. >> let me tell you, that part of you following the trucks that is
just thrilling. wow, this woman is so brave. doing that in china. >> the reality it was like -- each truck drove two or three hours and you're sitting on a highway, following a really slow truck. it was not that thrilling in reality. >> how about you, alec. >> i think milly covered that question very well. one thing i would add just as a small note of hopefulness, is that -- this is not intended as a corporate plug but as a statement of reality but what is happening in the market right now, there is a growing sort of option out there that is prospering in fact that for small businesses that are trying to -- want to sell their goods without going into -- online without going into the maw of
amazon and it's shopify and it as a whole other way for companies that have something -- have something they want to sell online and need to be able to sell it online without entering -- without wanting to go into this massive empire where you're going to be paying these 15%, 20%, 30% commissions to this giant company, and that actually i think is possible you'll see more things like that, more -- as china gets ever big examiner scarier you'll see more, small domestic small businesses here not want to do something -- want to do something else and realizing how bad it is for them. so even without antitrust action which is necessary, you might start to see a bit of -- some
challenges here and there. >> if i can interject, and -- she says but what is the difference between buying from amazon and walmart. in a way they're not -- none of them are known for being dollar businesses -- >> absolutely not. >> or employees. >> absolutely not. walmart is famously had a hugely destructive effect on this country in the years of its massive growth, 70s, 80s, 90s, hugely destructive impact on downtowns, and small towns all around the country. one major difference that has to be pointed out between the two companies is walmart pays so much more in taxes. because of its sort of physical
presence, it pays billions more in taxes per year than amazon. amazon has basically was all about gaming the taxes. that's how i grew. avoiding sales taxes, having to charge sales taxes by being online, by putting its warehouses only in certain places to avoid having to pay taxes, and that's been its just driving part of its success, and so that just -- i would just say no fan of walmart, so destructive in so many ways because much bigger mesh taxpayer than amazon. >> okay. it is time to wrap things ump. thanks to alec and amelia, to everyone who is watching. please consider buying their books from your local independent book seller or using the link provided.
you can also check out other events in the all virtual 2021 virginia festival of the books at vabook.org. thank you alec and amelia. >> great. >> you have been a great conversation partner. appreciate everyone here tonight. apprec >> appreciate everyone here tonight. appreciate alec and, yes, thank you so much to the virginia fest value of books. thank you for spreading the -- the virginia festival of books. i really do think we can all collectively do better. >> yeah. some great questions, and so glad to be paired with amelia for this. and thank you, all of you, for joining us tonight. it is a really tough subject, and the books, i'll admit the books are, you know, they can be pretty bracing reads, both of them. but this is just so, so, so important. the independent bookstore here
in baltimore put several of the books by the cash register, you know, to promote them, and the bookstore owner wrote on them, said please read this book. s this is our world. and she's right. and both these books are our world, so it's so important that we wrestle with it. ♪ >> weekends on c-span2 are an intellectual feast. every saturday american history tv documents america's stories. and on sunday booktv brings you the latest nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span2 comes from these television companies and more, including comcast. ..
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