Made (responsibly?) In China

The following post was contributed by one of MTD’s readers Katherine Don, who recently returned from a trip in Southern China:

Cutting PatternsI recently had the opportunity to visit two factories in the southern China town of Kaiping that produced denim jeans for a major discount retailer in the United States. Considering that the only reports of Chinese textile factories that I had come across had been critical, the visit was a (pleasant) surprise.

Working conditions were orderly and tidy, the air was cool despite scorching heat just beyond the concrete walls, generous lighting flowed from large bay windows, and healthy employees casually chatted above the hum of the machines barely noticing the presence of the factory owner leading us through. A sense of respect and camaraderie passed between the management and employees, ages 20-40, while the atmosphere was calm yet efficient for a Sunday afternoon without a sense of employee exhaustion or oppression.

Each floor of the large facility occupied a different stage of the production process, from cutting to sewing, embroidering, and packaging. The floors were neatly organized with sturdy machines—some computerized—for a streamlined process from bolt to box.

While observing the mechanical, yet diligent process at each station, spread out between mounds of denim jean in various stages, it was natural to see how more than 4000 items are produced daily ready for the shelves of a major American big box store, pre-packed with hangers and price tags—all for less than 25 cents per piece—the current going rate for any cut, style, wash and quantity of denim jeans in China. Considering the ability of the factory to quickly program and mass produce any cut and style, the notion of a boutique jeans market in the west seemed a laughable scam on the upper-class western consumer. (I was especially impressed by the custom embroidery machine pictured below, which stitched the butterflies and curlicues you see on teenage girls’ hip-hugger back pockets, 16 at a time)

Sewing Pockets

One of the more altruistic in our party spoke with the owner about increasing worker salaries and benefits in order to reverse the much-publicized “race to the bottom” of the globalized textile industry. The owner’s response demonstrated the real-world complexities of a decision that is so obvious in the eyes of western academics and journalists. Like the U.S. there is tremendous job insecurity in China. Though China makes as much as half the world’s clothes today, perpetual fear exists that less-developed markets like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Thailand will take the reins as soon as China loses its competitive edge. This fear is so much the case, that any attempts by factory owners to rock the boat have been met with threats and violence from other factory owners, fearful of losing their businesses.

Not surprisingly, the factory owner said that it was not just his workers who feel the squeeze; he himself is left with very little salary at the end of the day and the middlemen at later stages of the supply chain that eat up all of the margins.

Regardless of the veracity of the factory owner’s stories, what was immediately evident was that the stories of workers locked into dark rooms—not allowed to take bathroom breaks or talk, being worked to the brink of death—were not the case in this factory. In retrospect, it seems sheltered and naive to assume that the conditions of every factory in China are dismal chambers where laborers are enslaved in poor working conditions under management insensitive to personal health and well-being.

Inevitably it has been the reports of flawed practice and mismanagement that tend to make headlines while presumably thousands of factories, like the one I saw, prosper under relatively fair-minded and responsible business owners

One Response to “Made (responsibly?) In China”

  1. Katherine,

    Many thanks for your contribution to the site. First hand accounts of what is actually happening on the ground in China are especially valuable to MTD readers. China is big and complicated and there is a tendency to draw erroneous conclusions from limited data. Your observations and descriptions of the factories you visited helps to paint a more complete picture of the actual state of manufacturing in China.

    Jack