Outside Shinjuku station, Tokyo, a street musician performs on the body of his guitar.
Many of us, at some point in our lives, have picked up a guitar and strummed it. The guitar invites experimentation in that way. It isn’t made up of a million different keys like the piano, it doesn’t require sharing spit like a horn instrument, and it doesn’t need a bow to bring it to life. It presents a field of strings. Under the pressure of your fingertips alone, without even knowing a single chord, you will make a sound.
Even if you don’t own one, there’s a guitar in your life somewhere. From your elementary school classroom to a concert you’ve attended to the street musician standing on the corner in the city where you live, the guitar has been there.
But the guitar’s ubiquity also attests to its affordability. Most people do not question the low price of the mass-market guitar. But exactly how is it that an instrument made out of wood, strings, metals, and electronic parts, that needs human workers for assembly and finishing, be so cheap?
The answer, and true of the industry for decades, is simple: by outsourcing the labor from abroad, where workers are paid much lower wages. Since the 1970s, for the most part, this has meant outsourcing from Korea. In fact, until very recently, Korean workers made more than half of the world’s guitars.
Since Cort Guitars alone commands 30% of this global guitar market, it is possible that the men and women who worked at the Cort and Cor-tek factories in Korea were making your first guitar. As the folks on Acoustic Guitar Forum tell it, “Between Cort and Samick [another Korean guitar manufacturer], everybody who has played guitar for a while has played one, whether they know it or not.”
The fact that many American, European and Japanese guitars were made in Korea has long been known among guitar aficionados. But unlike the publicity surrounding the export garment industry, the abuses of guitar workers to feed this annual $6 billion dollar industry is rarely publicized.
At the Cort and Cor-tek factores in Daejon and Incheon, ‘cheap guitar’ translated into a pressure for speed, cutting corners on required safety equipment, harassment and forced overtime. They endured the kind of conditions that were optimal for the guitar- not for them. And thus the Cor-tek factory had no windows. A single dust mask was given for an entire week. They couldn’t go home until production goals were met- but weren’t paid for all the extra hours. After 10 years of work, this ‘seniority’ still earned them less than 24 dollars a day.
As one Cort worker told me in Japan, waving his four-fingered hand,
It’s rare to find a worker with all ten of their fingers. Some people are missing multiple fingers, or all of the tips.”
Jack Westheimer, the co-founder of Cort Guitars, acknowledged in this article,
There were two factors driving up costs in Japan and Korea. The first was a labor shortage. In both countries there weren’t enough people willing to do what they called ‘3-D’ jobs: ones that are dirty, dangerous and difficult, like working in a guitar plant. Why work in a guitar plant when you can make more money as a waiter?’
That’s a good question, Jack. WHY work at a guitar plant at such an unlivable wage and in such demeaning conditions?
Still, the wages weren’t low ENOUGH for Yung-ho Park, CEO of Cort Guitars, and Westheimer. And they didn’t like the fact that the Korean Cort and Cor-tek workers were unionizing.
In fact, they picked the move to factories in China and Indonesia, as Westheimer says, because
Unemployment in China is equal to 250 million people, or twice the entire US workforce. With numbers like that, it will be a long time before there’s a labor shortage. The Chinese government believes that strong labor unions reduce employment levels, so there won’t be union problems either. “
And yet both Korea’s National Labor Relations Board and the High Court of Korea ruled that the mass layoffs and the penalization of union members was illegal and discriminatory. Running from the unions – and doing countless other illegal actions, such as hiring thugs to inflict violence on the workers – is this REALLY what is necessary to make a cheap quality guitar?
It’s clear that Cort Guitars is on a race to the bottom. Guitar companies in the US and elsewhere that seek to have their budget lines should reconsider: Is it worth it?