Slate picked up the story.
But focusing on that $1-an-hour — from Harwell’s description of workers putting in almost 60 hours a week to earn about $62 — isn’t really the point.
It’s certainly not much money. The minimum wage in the United States has been above a dollar since the 1960s. (The wages at the factory that produced Trump’s clothes, for a company called G-III Apparel Group, are indicated with a red bar. The actual hourly range was from $1.03 to $1.15, based on numbers Harwell shared with me.)
Of course, once you adjust for inflation, the minimum has never really been that low. A 75-cent minimum wage in 1950 is the equivalent of $7.50 today.
But bear in mind that just as a dollar in 1950 isn’t the same as a dollar in 2017, a dollar in China isn’t the same as a dollar in the United States.
Consider per capita income, the total gross domestic product in the United States and in China divided among the residents of each country. The United States consistently has a much higher per capita income than China, meaning that a dollar of income in the United States is relatively less valuable than a dollar of income in that country.
If we adjust the U.S. minimum wage each year based on the ratio of per capita income in the United States and China, the picture changes. In 2015, for example, the per capita income in the United States was about seven times larger than that of China. Meaning that the adjusted minimum wage — $7.34 in 2016 dollars — would be worth about $1.04 in China. Or: About what G-III was paying.
But again: That’s not the point. The point of Harwell’s report was that the investigation found that the workers at the facility were often earning less than China’s minimum wage in some parts of the country, which is a more important metric. Additionally, the average manufacturing employee in China earned twice what employees at G-III were making. What’s more, those employees were forced to work more in overtime than is allowed under Chinese law, working up to 82 hours of overtime a month when the law caps the allowable total at 36 hours. Less than one-third of them were offered mandated medical insurance coverage and pensions, and the company didn’t contribute to an affordable housing fund as mandated.
Slate’s story largely covered those points, too. But the focus on the $1-an-hour actually obscures the deeper issue at play here: A company that, even by the different standards guiding Chinese businesses, wasn’t hitting the mark.