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Several months ago the National Geographic featured a picture from photographer Edward Burtynsky’s project titled, succinctly enough, “China.” It was of the inside of a poultry processing plant – hundreds of workers, all in pink scrubs, blue aprons, shower caps, plastic gloves and masks, each working over a plastic tub of chicken parts. At the time I felt a little guilty about all the times I ever felt sorry for myself – even though I didn’t like my job, or my car was on the fritz, at least I didn’t have to do that for a living. For some reason the image has stayed with me, and I’ve often consoled myself with the thought, “at least you’re not a Chinese poultry worker.”

Then the other day I was reading a little blurb in the November/December Orion magazine about the typical journey of a Chinook salmon, from the cold north Atlantic waters to your dinner plate. When the salmon is caught, it is frozen and loaded onto a ship waiting in a Norwegian harbor. The ship then sails, er, motors, to either Rotterdam or Hamburg where the fish is loaded onto a huge international container ship, which then sets off for China. About a month later, the frozen salmon arrives in China, most likely the northeast coast, home to most of China’s fish processing plants. The fish is trucked to one of these plants, is defrosted and on a large industrial floor, is skinned, boned, filleted and refrozen. Then it is loaded back onto a ship, destined for a U.S. or European supermarket. “Fresh” salmon, anyone?

The reason for this very long, very circuitous route is this: salmon have tiny little bones, called “pin bones” that the big filleting machines miss. They have to be plucked by hand using pliers or tweezers. Apparently labor costs make this too expensive/not profitable enough in the U.S. and Europe, so we ship the fish to China, where labor is cheap and productivity is high.

While I was reading this story, the first image that popped into my mind was the photograph of the Chinese poultry workers (you can see it here). The Orion article described the fish workers in basically the same way:

“In a large, neon-lit industrial space are ranks of tables, each with dozens of brightly colored plastic trays on top of them. Standing at the tables, dressed in white coats and caps and wearing latex gloves and cotton masks, are hundreds of factory workers – most of them young women from rural villages.”

If you were to tell this story to someone who was unfamiliar with the concept of global economies, he’d probably shake his head in disbelief. I mean, it just sounds so incredibly inefficient. How on earth can it be cheaper to send a fish around the world to have its bones plucked, when for a few dollars more an hour, you can have somebody do it right here? Or, conversely, how much can the Chinese factory workers possibly be making if it is cheaper to send it around the world than to do it ourselves? A dollar an hour? A dollar a day?

Give me a salmon fillet with pin bones, please. I will happily fetch my little pair of pliers (to hell with the apron and gloves) and pluck them out myself. For free.

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