Humans must produce. Our labor must be applied to something that can be used by someone else. It is not just that we are dependent on the labor of others (we are), but also that we would be horribly dissatisfied with ourselves if we did not. Unfortunately, some of the things we make for each other are a bit more permanent than we are. Items and buildings can be passed down, generation to generation. If everyone has everything they could ever need, there is no need for anyone to make anything. When this happens, the economy stagnates. People become willing to sell their labor for ridiculously low wages, a race to the bottom which only the employers win.
China is our best trading partner for this very reason. China is an old country, a highly populated country, a highly refined country. Sure, many areas are without indoor plumbing and electricity, and there is a massive gap between wealth and poverty, but with all those people, all that untapped potential, China can mobilize itself very quickly. It has reserves of energy ready to be utilized. Rather than offer their labor to the benefit of their countrymen, many Chinese citizens work in dank factories for meager wages to make cheap plastic goods for unappreciative and wasteful Americans.
A few questions arise then. Let's assume that the workmanship of a Chinese laborer is just as good as that of an American laborer; that the manufacturing process is essentially the same. Why is the labor of a Chinese worker worth less than that of an American worker? Why would Americans need to go all the way to China to get the goods that could just as easily and effectively be made here? Doesn't this take more energy, total, to make the goods in a far away place and then have them shipped to their ultimate destination? Who stands to gain from this arrangement?
America has safety standards, minimum wage laws, schools, roads, hospitals, all the great civil services and legal systems that protect us from undue harm and exploitation. America is still a fresh country, lacking the thousands of years of development China has had. We had more black slaves than white people (as if there is a difference) in the southern US for over a hundred years, stealing their labor. Companies that sell goods want to buy them for the cheapest price. Because of the disparity in wages, the goods made in China are so cheap that even after the transportations costs have been applied, the company still makes a handsome profit. (I could quickly go on a tangent and explain how the relative monetary values of goods in relation to the amount of non-renewable fossil fuel that went into making them is inaccurate because the price does not reflect the limited nature of the supply and negative consequences of their utilization. [Second aside
: Did you know that China jump-started its economy with the gratuitous and uncaring wholesale mining and burning of its enormous coal reserves? The goods we buy from factories powered by coal help to "fuel" this process.]) In short, the people who benefit most from this arrangement are the ones who get the profit, and it should come as no surprise that they are responsible for the hypocritical trade agreement we have with China.
We protest the abuse of humans that we know happens in China. We lament how little freedom they have, how oppressed and mistreated they are. We would hope that everyone can have it as good as we do (do we, really?). We do not fully realize that our purchases of the goods they make goes to maintain this system of oppression which we loathe. We enjoy the cheap goods, but can't stand to have such working conditions within our sight. So we get someone else to do it.
I like to think of it as outsourced slavery.