It's just my life

Joan F. Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California - February, 2003

Soe Agnie was sitting on the front porch of her small but comfortable house, overlooking the beautiful shady street that she had become so used to. On evenings like these she was enjoying the picturesque view of trees, sidewalks, and neighbors walking their dogs. Her nose picked up the mouthwatering aroma of barbeque, as she pricked up her ears to hear an old Rolling Stones song that was playing on one of her neighbors' radios. "Just take it or leave it. Don't tell your friends just what you're gonna do now. You take it or leave it. It's just my life..." And suddenly the images changed. Memory took over...

Soe Agnie was 10 years old, living in one of the countless slums of China, alive by the grace of God and whoever prevented her from being murdered when born, as girls were not exactly considered an asset. The family was dead poor. They lived with 16 people in a space smaller than a container: from grandparents to uncles, aunts, and cousins. And Soe Agnie was always hungry. But the large factory in the village, where all the adults from her family and the vicinity were working didn't allow children: At least, not officially. But if you were discrete enough, you were allowed in through the backdoor after schooltime.

The wages for children were minimal, but they helped to feed the many hungry mouths, to buy clothes, and even to pay for the braces that Soe Agnie so desperately needed at that age. And all the kids in the village did it: Every day after school, they would enter the factory through the backdoor, and perform their tasks. And Soe Agnie would listen to the radio while her little hands were diligently doing their meticulous work. "Just take it, or leave it, it's just my life..."

After work, the family would leave together, and discuss the day's events in the little container that was "home." Yes, life was hard in those days. Yet, it was this opportunity of working after school, that started the dream within Soe Agnie to see the country where the stylish looking managers that visited the village once a year came from: America.

And now she was here. At 42, Soe had made something of her life. After high school, her parents sent her to the United States for higher education. She finished her bachelor's and Master's in Fashion Design, and worked her way up to the executive level of a successful company, that was now considering opening a production unit in China. However, child labor was, of course, out of the question, because it was condemned by local authorities and the entire society. And the company did not want to risk its reputation in the home- or global market.

Soe Agnie understood all of this, but she also understood the other side, because that was where she came from. And she knew that if she had not had the opportunity to help earn the family income from her young age on, she would have never reached this position, as she might not have had the inspiration that conceived the dream, which led her to this beautiful porch in this peaceful neighborhood. Soe Agnie sighed.

For the first time she clearly realized the core of the ethical dilemma her company was facing: People have an ingrained ethnocentrism, which leads them to believe that their perceptions and cultural performance are the right – and only – way to go. It’s tough for a people with a relatively prospering economy to realize that what is an absolute no-no to them, can be a blessing to others. And that, by imposing their convictions upon other cultures, they do more bad than good to those: withholding them the opportunity to outgrow the financial pressure they’re under.

So, now that Soe had finally worked herself up to the other side of the table, she had to come to the painful conclusion that she still could not do anything for her many relatives and their children in the slum where she came from. And tomorrow was her flight to China. She would have to convey the message to the villagers where the new factory would operate: No child labor allowed. Never! Because that was the law. And she would see the faces. Faces like hers when she was ten. She would have to let them know that "she was not going to take it, but leave it. It was just their life..."

Soe Agnie wept...