Editors note: Since publishing this story, a firestorm of controversy and debate has erupted in the comments below. To address these and other issues, the author of this post, Elias, has written an addendum which you can find below. Click here to jump straight to it.
The following is a first hand account of what went on behind the drab gray exterior of the USA Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai expo — a tale of greed, indifference, corruption, rebellion and eventually justice — written by one of the Student Ambassadors who worked there.
The USA Pavilion was ruled by its coporate sponsors — sponsors who callously used eager Chinese volunteers, deceived and eventually politicized student interns and twisted an image of the US to fit their branding desires.
How did the pavilion morph from a nation’s showcase into a corporate advertising campaign?
It began in 1990, when the US Congress passed a law (U.S. Code Title 22 2452b) restricting the US State Department from providing public funds for World’s Fair Exhibition in an effort to curb the suspicious allocation of capital that had marred World’s Fairs of years past. Henceforth, funding for US participation in World’s Fairs has been limited to private sources only, which would assumedly be easier to track and control than mysterious government funding.
The US pavilion’s Commissioner General José Villarreal, a lawyer from San Antonio with ties to the Clinton family, spearheaded much of the fundraising efforts for this year’s pavilion. Over the course of what Villarreal describes as “particularly trying months,” he was able to reel in support from a cast of corporations and state governments, including Wal-Mart, Johnson and Johnson, and the State Department of Texas, among other sponsors.
In a personal conversation with José, he described that he did not control how money was spent at the Pavilion and was only responsible for initial fund-raising. This response came about when he was faced with questions from student ambassadors regarding how $61 million was spent on such a, to put it politely, “simple” pavilion. In terms of both architecture and content, the USAP was devoid of all “bells and whistles” when compared to Saudi Arabia’s massive 4-D movie cinema complete with a moving walkway, Japan’s violin-playing robot, or Germany’s holistic presentation of German history and culture intertwined with technology
Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wrote,
“The inattention to aesthetics might work as a signal of power and wealth, like Bill Gates being rich enough to wear denim when he goes to meet the queen. But then you get to the three videos that make up America’s message to the world. Message? We’re bad at languages, in hock to corporations, and able to set up gardens when children shame us into doing so.”
Much information is available from mainstream news sources regarding the fundraising and diplomatic dilemmas surrounding the construction of the USAP. Among those, I recommend interested readers to take a look at Adam Minter’s independent blog Shanghai Scrap (May 3, 2010), which probes the questionable allocation of funds.
As much as I wanted to refrain from picking apart the numbers, there is one figure I cannot let go without mention: the $575,000 price tag on the Commissioner General’s Office. Forsaking any hopes of anonymity, I used to work right next to his office and lounge, both of which are Spartan even by Chinese standards. I’ve stayed at $40 hotels in China (238 RMB) with nicer interior décor. Even if you bought new computers and office supplies, the cost of constructing the rooms would be less than $5,000. So why does this assessment describe the Commissioner’s office at a price of over half a million dollars? The student guide program, which employed 140 people over a 6 month period, costs a mere $932,000.
When students and volunteers took a look at numbers like these and compared them with what they were actually experiencing in the pavilion, even the most patriotic among knew something was very, very wrong.
The Student Ambassadors
In April, a group of 75 student ambassadors (SAs) arrived in Shanghai to begin training for a three-and-a-half month internship at the USA pavilion.
Borrowing a page out of USAP sponsor Wal-Mart’s labor record, salaries for SAs and junior staff were set at very low levels. Prior to arriving in Shanghai, SAs were told that they would receive a stipend of around $18 a day, which was supposed to be sufficient based on the cost of living in the area. Many junior staff made a salary of around 6,000 RMB a month (less than $1,000), and had to pay for their own housing.
In terms of work hours, SAs were expected to work around 40 hours a week, whereas staff members did not have actual limitations and often worked upwards of 50 or 60 hours a week without overtime pay.
During the first week of July, dubbed “National Week” in celebration of American Independence Day, members of the Entertainment staff and their SAs put in 10 to 12 hour days, and were pressured to try to out-work one another.
All staff were supposed to have 2 days off within a 7 day cycle, yet during busy times staff were expected to come in for half days on their days off and answer work-related phone calls at all hours of the day. Thus, an environment of mutual exploitation came about, staff would “one-up” each other by working extended hours on their days off, joking about blatant breaches of labor codes rather than confronting their superiors.
Price-gouging within the World Expo site and in Shanghai more generally rendered both junior staff salaries and SA stipends insufficient. Lunch or dinner in the World Expo site would run between from 30 to 70 RMB ($4.5 to $10), and taxis from Pudong to Puxi (Shanghai city proper) ran from 35 to 70 RMB each way. One would be hard-pressed to live on $18 a day unless one never ventured out of the Expo and took health risks by eating the cheapest food available. The cheapest food options were found at a convenience store chain named Family Mart, where one could purchase a microwaved set meal for 18RMB. Such meals were packaged in several layers of plastic, which are known to emit dioxins and other toxic substances when microwaved.
These Tasty Toxic Treats were limited to fried chicken and greasy pork, so those who abstained from eating meat or wanted healthier food had to fork over larger amounts of cash at foreign chains such as Starbucks. Starbucks in China sells salads, vegetarian or chicken sandwiches and soups. Senior staff distributed KFC vouchers to SAs in what they said was an attempt to defray the costs of eating at the Expo. The SAs were well aware that Yum Brands was a sponsor, so while some saw it as a low-cost means of providing food, others viewed it as an attempt to enforce brand loyalty.
Divisions of Labor
The SAs were split into several areas of employment: Operations, Protocol, Communications, Finance, V.I.P. Suite and Entertainment.
Those who worked in Protocol or V.I.P. had the opportunity to witness celebrity and government visitors (i.e. a picture with Al Gore), while the Operations team were not only left in the dark as to the schedule of such appearances, but also locked into rotating work shifts out in the hot summer sun dealing with millions of visitors. Needless to say, “office vs. operations” tensions developed, and this led staff members to reconfigure the Operations’ schedule by offering longer breaks, shorter hours and team dinners to compensate for the other disparities.
Nowhere were these disparities clearer than in the V.I.P. Suite, an exclusive upstairs lounge named “1776 suite,” devoted solely to entertaining and hosting functions of top-level sponsors. A membership card system was enacted for employees and friends of USAP sponsors. Initial scheduling preference was given to “global sponsors,” companies that donated over $5 million. The USAP expected high volume attendance in the 1776 suite, so it had a rotating schedule of 15 well-qualified SAs.
But attendance at the suite was incredibly low, and much of the SAs’ 8.5-hour shifts were spent waiting by the door for visitors like concierges, or competing with secretaries for access to the reception computers. During the overlap between morning and afternoon shifts, it was common to have five or six SAs standing around in the upstairs and downstairs lobbies with absolutely nothing to do, merely waiting out the final hours of their shifts. So while VIP SAs joked away the hours and played online games, the rest of the staff were outside dealing with the myriad problems that arise with crowds of over 30,000 visitors a day.
The Sorry Fate of the Chinese Volunteers
The inequality was even greater when it came to how the Chinese college students were treated. Chinese college students with strong English proficiency were told they would have summer internships at the USAP, which they believed would be a prestigious position. What they were not told was that their “internship” would consist of doing janitorial work for Diploma, an outsourced janitorial company. Instead of working hand-in hand with Americans, they swept stairs, cleaned bathrooms and emptied rubbish bins.
These interns/janitors were paid poverty wages, some as low as 900RMB a month. Frightened about being fired, few spoke up about their working conditions, and those who did only did so with those they trusted. Many cross-national friendships were founded in the lavatory, where one would encounter a Chinese college student the same age cleaning toilets. Many SAs felt uncomfortable learning that that their Chinese counterparts had a monthly salary half of what an American SA would make in a week. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the proclaimed goal of the World Expo to strengthen global ties and promote international unity? Does this disparity of income not mirror the same WTO policies that exacerbate such social stratification in the first place?
Land of the Free, Home of the Brave
The hypocrisy finally got to the SAs, so one evening in late June, a group of six to eight women and men gathered together in an apartment to discuss how to put their grievances into action.
As interns and staff they were fed up with being lied to and swindled by USAP management, and refused to be pawns to its corporate sponsors.
They decided to draft a formal letter addressing their grievances and distribute it to all the SAs for approval.
When the group of brave individuals brought the drafted petition to the workplace and shared it with other SAs, it was met with extraordinary enthusiasm. Several other workers wanted to get involved in the movement and met for a subsequent meeting to draft a new letter to the USAP management.
What was most inspiring about their actions is that, for the most part, these SAs were the type of people who were not involved in labor agitation or social activism in the past. Some of them would probably have been the same folks who would have teased my peers in hunger strikes, speak-outs, and critical mass marches during my college years. No, rather this time it hit home: SAs and junior staff united on common ground to make their voice heard.
The following is the original text of this petition:
“This letter is directed at the management of the U.S.A.P. and was written through a collective effort by the Student Ambassadors. As Student Ambassadors, we feel that there is a serious set of problems affecting our well-being, morale, and safety. These problems stem largely from misinformation, inadequate compensation, and a general inattention by U.S.A.P. management to meet some of our most basic needs. These problems are outlined below. We sincerely hope that you will hear our concerns.
First, from the beginning of the program, we have received almost no information about the nature of our jobs. Not only was the application vague, but also neither the pre-departure pack nor the weeklong training program gave us any description of our duties. There should have been a detailed explanation of what we would be doing as student ambassadors. It is unacceptable that an employer keeps its prospective employees in the dark about their responsibilities.
Second, there is the issue of pay. Many pavilions pay their staff western wages. On the other hand, we receive pay less than many of our subcontractors (IVG, Dance America). We firmly believe that we, as well as the second session ambassadors should receive fair pay and treatment. Furthermore, we are appalled at the wages and mistreatment of our Diploma staff. As an entity representing the United States we would hope that the U.S.A.P. would uphold the labor and wage standards enjoyed by citizens in our own country and not seek to exploit our host country’s “cheap” labor force.
Third, we were not told about the staff cafeteria until halfway through the session, and not given any credit to use there until recently. This is despite the fact that many of our subcontracted employees in security and most other Expo Pavilion employees were provided with a food stipend from the beginning of the Expo. We were not provided with a food stipend until July 1 and this forced us to pay exorbitant prices for food at the Expo. Furthermore, while there was a low-priced option (the Expo workers cafeteria), we could not eat there even if we paid with our own money because our cards could not be activated without USAP management signing off for them through the Expo Bureau. Until now, we have been spending a big part of our pay just for the overpriced food (largely fast food) at the Expo and we are not even provided with bottled water to keep hydrated during these dangerously hot summer months. In addition, we found out
ourselves about the staff cafeteria and it took more than a month to get credits put on our IDs. Information about benefits and services offered to expo employees should have been given to us from day one, not during the last month of our stay. We feel that we should be compensated for lost wages prior to being given a reasonable food stipend.
Finally, there is the issue of neglect for the general health and well-being of some of the Ambassadors. There has been a mold problem in many of the apartments where we live. This has created a serious health risk to the Student Ambassadors and other USAP employees living in the Expo Village. Although numerous complaints were made, nothing has been done to remedy the problem. In addition, we were all promised health insurance coverage for the duration of our service here. However, several of us have had serious illness (some thought to be caused by the mold in our apartments) and when we sought medical treatment had to pay thousands of RMB out of pocket since our insurance does not cover even the most basic medical care. This is an expense most of us simply cannot afford.
Our concerns are not outrageous, but speak to meeting our basic needs and clearing the air regarding the staff and operations of our pavilion. Without our hard work and dedication, how would this Pavilion operate? While many of us are highly qualified for our service and went through a competitive process to get hired, many of the U.S.A.P. employees and management do not treat us with adequate respect, though in many cases they, themselves, are not as qualified as many of us and were not hired through a similar process. It should also be said that we are in contact with the second session Ambassadors and they are aware of conditions here. We sincerely hope that you will hear our grievances and respond accordingly in order to ensure a successful second half of the Expo. Thus far the management has been unconcerned and unresponsive to our grievances, despite having told us numerous times that we are the best part
of our pavilion. How about treating us as such?”
The actual presentation of the signed petition was not overly dramatic, as the management had already been informed that the SAs were collecting signatures and support at the workplace. In response to the petition, the management advised the creation of a Student Ambassador Forum and subsequent Working Group, spearheaded by two female and four male SAs. Each student ambassador that took part in the forum was responsible for a specific area of concern, these included; Living conditions, Office culture, Food stipend, Job assignment, Sub-contractors and Health Insurance. The first meeting of the Student Ambassador Forum was on July 11 at this time the concerns were voiced from by the respected SAs. An overview of the meeting was sent out by email to the SA listserv. This eventually became a thread of over 35+ responses from SAs, a democratic means of sharing information and opinions on the struggle. On July 12, the six SAs representatives to the Working group met with USAP’s Human Resources director in an effort to reach consensus upon solutions to the proposed issues raised by the SAs Petition and working group.
After much deliberation and fiery rhetoric within SAs and between senior management, a compensation agreement was agreed upon. Taking account for the fact that new SAs would start at 1,200RMB per week whereas we had to fight for a raise from 850RMB brought grounds for retroactive compensation. Food stipends and medical costs were also calculated in the final 2,550RMB deal.
Could this lead to Justice?
Ultimately, this petition paved the way to reclaiming justice at the United States Pavilion. SAs and junior staff members learned an important lesson in organizing and tasted the flavor of corporate America. Some of the young women and men that took part in this initiative may never partake in political or labor agitation in the future, but I am certain that, for some, sparks of personal activism have been ignited, fanning the flames of the international movement for social justice.
Given the praise and notoriety this piece has brought I would like to provide a formal addendum.
First off, I am very grateful that so many SAs provided honest comments to this piece. The issue of certain individuals over-posting or waging personal battles is a byproduct of an open forum for comments. Charlie, the editor of Chengdu Living, decided against censoring comments, although at times I wish he would have trimmed some portions as discussions drifted far away from SAs, the element of this piece.
All who worked at USAP had a different experience and mixed feelings about living in Shanghai. Clearly there are conflicts of interest based on personal and political opinions: I do not have ill feelings towards any former SAs, although, given the nature of the comments perhaps other may not feel the same about me. I was fortunate to work alongside a team of very bright and well-rounded American college students and recent graduates. After all, this was a competitive position and I’m very proud of my colleagues who are now in law school, medical school or pursuing entrepreneurial work in Asia.
The time period I worked at USAP was from April 15 to July 31st, the first session—
We were “guinea pigs” in the experiment of an outsourced national pavilion. Given the scale of the work environment it’s expected to have hiccups along the way, no expo pavilion nor its management was flawless by any means. (Well China, Japan and Saudi Arabia really had their shit together, but again, these pavilions were managed and supervised by their respected governments.)
Echoing the fashion that the US fights its wars, USAP was outsourced to corporations. Just as the US military outsources laundry or logistics to Kellogg Brown and Root subsidiaries, USAP was outsourced to any corporation willing to pay $5 million to become a “global sponsor” and put its logo on the pavilion. Thus it is expected that a corporate environment would prevail: Walmart sponsored the “rooftop garden”, Yum Brands sold KFC and Pizza Hut, Chevron taught visitors about its stellar environmental record, and so on.
Moving back to the issues of the SAs, the original title of this piece was “Shanghai World Expo 2010: USA Student Interns Defy Corporate Control” the original version can be viewed here for those with interest.
The editors at ChengduLiving shortened the piece and amended the title to make the piece more blog friendly. I believe that the title “Greed and Corruption” set an overbearing negative tone. The point of this piece was to showcase that well-qualified, well-educated young Americans were upset by the means that their country was represented and the unprofessional way in which they were initially treated. Had the first session SAs, not confronted authority and made their voices heard, then perhaps the 2nd session SAs would not have had the rosy experience that Antoine described.
My personal experience was not entirely “doom and gloom”, I had the chance to introduce and interview Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater. I grew up playing bass in jazz band and listening to DeeDee’s program on NPR, clearly this is an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Additionally, I enjoyed working with Abigail Washburn’s band, I first met her in Chengdu during the release of the album “Afterquake” which featured songs sung by children living in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. I spent countless hours running sound and working the stage for daily Dance America performances. The Dance America crew was a lively bunch of characters and really helped USAP “save face” especially in the long lines and heat of June and July.
In conclusion, this piece was an alternative take, a behind the scenes view, based on ethnographic information. The mainstream press did not cover this story, nor it is likely that they will pay attention to it now. I should note that I have been contacted by a journalist from NPR, who may be interested in working on a short piece.
As a writer, and supporter of independent media, I believe that people need to take it upon themselves to share their stories and experiences that would otherwise “slip under the radar”. I did not want this to be the case for the story of SAs that organized against the corporate nature of USAP and fought for progressive change. Surely there are still questions of how the $61 million was spent, and, given the voluminous comments on this piece, corruption, is on the tips of peoples’ tongues. However, I do not possess financial documents to make any formal statements on such matters, the management at USAP wasn’t exactly eager to share such information. But I do hope that the former staff enjoy their 2-month pay bonuses, the junior staff truly deserve them, clearly there was a lot of money left over after all.
Thanks for reading.