Because it’s cheap!

I am currently studying jewellery design, but I will not be writing about beaded necklaces that are made for Mardi Gras. Actually, we do not celebrate it in Europe in the same way that it is celebrated in the United States. I am mostly going to express mine and others opinions about daily life and how we deal with jewellery and clothes shops in Dundee, the UK, France, and Europe.

In order to find the opinions of other people, I sent out a questionnaire to teenagers, workmen, students, unemployed, and retired individuals. I tried to ask people from different social classes to find if money made a difference. The questions I asked were simple and were based on questions that I was curious to find the answers to. After the answers I received, I also came up with a few more questions to ask.

The first question I asked was, “When I say ‘Made in China’, what does that mean to you?” The replies I received were very similar, ranging from “huge factories, poor people working, children workers, rapidity, profitability, cheap goods, bad quality”.  Almost everyone thought the same thing, more on a negative side. The question is, “do people continue to buy Chinese items even if they criticize it?” I found that people do still continue to buy items despite what they know.

Even as a jeweller, I admit that I buy cheap jewels that are made in China (Claire’s, Topshop, New Look, Primark). These jewels are the kind that are easily breakable, lost, cheap, and are not important.  I always check the labels of things I buy out of curiosity, including clothes and jewellery. Honestly, I know where and how the stuff I buy are made when it says “Made in China”, but out of habit I still continue to buy it. It seems wrong, especially when I am aware of the bad conditions, pollution, and other factors. Why don’t I change? It is probably because it’s a habit. I’m still a student so I always try to find the cheapest deal when I buy clothes and jewellery. Many people I interviewed do the same. Even though we are aware of what is happening, we live too far from the reality of the other side of the world and are more concerned about the money in our purse.

I’ve asked my friends and myself the reasons as to why we continue to buy cheap things all the time, especially when we don’t need it. Why do we not keep our money in order to buy something of better quality, made in Europe in good working conditions, but more expensive? The response that came up was quantity. Our society is a consumer society. The fashion society will tell you what to wear and say that what you are currently purchasing will be outdated in a few months! We do not want the expensive brand made by a fashion designer. Instead we prefer similar clothing just for the attitude and look. Most people don’t have the money to buy designer brands, unless they are from the upper class! You can just ignore that and try to buy “ethical” clothes and jewellery that was made in better working conditions or go to second hand shops. I try to do that sometimes, but I find that things made in Europe are too expensive to buy all the time or items in second hand shops are not “fashionable”.  I received similar responses from my panel. Some people are not interested in buying second hand clothes, but more to try less but Asian goods.

I’ve asked some people the reasons why they want to stop buying jewellery and good “made in China” and they reply, “ because Made in China items are destroying western jobs, factories, and the economy.” When I ask them about the working conditions, people are aware of how the products are made and feel guilty, but most of them admit that this is not the first thought that came to mind.

A few friends have argued that products “Made in China” are everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to boycott it. We can’t really do that because China has such a large export industry worldwide and it’s probably not a wise thing to do either. Europe is in a huge crisis and people are very aware of their money and how much things cost. We may tend to blame China, but actually they are just making what we want and ask for: cheap, consumable, but a detriment in quality and working conditions.

We tend to blame China for many reasons, but goods produced from other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, South America and Turkey are all made in poor working conditions. The quality for products from these countries is similar to Chinese goods and pollution from clothing factories is quite harmful. A large number of jeans are made in Turkey and sadly workers in textile factories have serious health injuries. The public tends to turn a blind eye towards these issues. Why do we only really focus on what happens in China? I asked this question to my panel and gave them information about jean factories in Turkey as a comparison. Some people came up with interesting responses. They said that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, western people and westerns factories are possibly afraid of that. They try to make China the black sheep because they were able to increase their economy so quickly. Chinese made goods quickly and at an affordable price in large quantity, due to the large numbers of workers they have! Westerns try to use the guilt factor with consumers in order to keep their economy alive.

Artificial Flower Factory

Flower factory

Photographer Taylor Glenn has taken a different approach to many when trying to depict the mass manufacture taking place in China on our behalf. While others focus on the sheer number of people, Glenn is using portraiture to focus on individuals. In doing this he seems to capture not only the essence of life for those making things like, in this case, artificial flowers, but also the fact that this stuff is all pretty much hand-made.

“Because manufacturing has rapidly gone overseas I believe we are so less aware of what goes into making the products that most of us use, whether it be flowers or a toaster. A lot of it is still made by hand in places like this in China. Its mind boggling when you look at how much work goes into production of things that are really so meaningless in the scope of things.”

Flower girl

(Read and see more at An Artificial Flower Factory in China Photographed by Taylor Glenn.)

A Pre-conceived Idea of China and its Products

Many people have very set views of China and its products. China is renowned worldwide for its well made, and very well designed electronics.  However, it is also well known for mass-production, ‘well-made fakes’, and often poor factory conditions. A lot of people do not care where their product has come from, as long as it is good quality and value for money. And many people simply are not aware of how and where their product was made.

I interviewed around 7 friends, friends of friends, and self confessed shopping fanatics to find out their opinion on Chinese products, how they think they are made, and the quality of products which were ‘Made in China’. Each participant was given the same list of questions, but I asked a few different questions too, depending on their answer. Below is an example of one of the more interesting interviews:

Are you concerned with where your clothes come from? 

‘No, it makes no difference whether its from China, the UK or anywhere. I mostly care about the quality of the clothes.’

Would you be put off buying clothes from a certain company if you found out their factory staff were working in bad conditions?

‘I suppose so, but it wouldn’t stop me buying/using the products if they were good quality.’

When you see the words ‘Made in China’, what immediately comes to mind?

‘I just imagine huge, industrial and clean looking factories full of Chinese people making stuff. If something says ‘Made in Taiwan’ however, for some reason I picture kids working in poor conditions for a small wage. (that might be a bit judgemental!)’

Do you think the Chinese produce better quality products than Western countries?

‘If you’re referring to electronics then yes. They are the best at making electronics as far as I am concerned. But in regards to clothes, obviously there is a huge market for fakes in China and that makes me slightly suspicious that their clothing isn’t of as good quality as something you might find in a Western factory.’

If you were given a gift of a piece of clothing – not from a recognisable brand – with only a label that said ‘Made in China’ on it, would you be reluctant to wear it. Would you assume it was poor quality?

I might be a bit suspicious that it came from a market where you might find a lot of fakes, but if the item of clothing looked good and seemed like good quality, I would still wear it.

Coming up with interview questions with a friend in my group…

Each of the participants had very similar opinions on Chinese produce, which were all interesting to hear. However, naturally none of the participants actually KNOW what goes on in the making of products in China. These were all their pre-conceived ideas. I want to know what ACTUALLY happens in Chinese factories, during the making of clothing, electronics and other products, to see if these opinions and allegations are correct.

I recently read an article on Mark Shields, a communications consultant from Washington DC, who describes himself as an ‘Apple super-user’. After finding out about the poor working conditions in Apple Mac factories in China he decided to start a petition which gathered over 162,000 signatures in the space of a week. The petition was to try and attain a ‘worker protection strategy’ to try to reduce the number of injuries and suicides which typically peak when the workers are under extreme pressure to meet quotas. Shields said ‘Here’s the thing: You’re Apple. You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, its not at the expense of horrible human suffering.’

Female workers resting their heads in exhaustion during their short break at an Apple factory in China

In reading this it was evident that many people DO care about where their product has come from, and how/where it was made. It was also interesting to find out about working conditions in Chinese Apple factories. I can safely say now, as I look at my Apple Mac desktop, that I feel slightly guilty using it. I decided to ask some of my participants a few more questions. But this time, I gave them some facts:

Workers at some Chinese Apple factories are paid as little as £1.12 an hour. In one particular branch, 18 people committed suicide on the premises due to extreme pressure. Many factories are now covered with suicide nets to stop people jumping to their deaths in the facility.

How does this make you feel about using Apple products?

‘I love my Apple Macbook too much to stop using it, but this makes me feel sick and guilty to use it, bearing in mind that it could have been made in these awful conditions.’

Did you think Chinese factories had such bad conditions until now?

‘No. I always thought it was the poorer countries that suffered from poor working conditions. I never knew that such a rich and successful country would treat their workers this way.’

It was interesting to see that, in general, people here, in Dundee, either believe that their stuff is just mass-produced in big, shiny Chinese factories, or, they simply do not care. There is such an element of shock when they find out about the awful working conditions in many Chinese factories, however I found from my survey that this still wouldn’t stop people from buying something made in poor working conditions, providing it was good quality. Ultimately, we tend to want to keep our pre-conceived ideas and stay ignorant to what really goes on during the making of our products, so that we can go on using them without feeling guilty.

Working Conditions for Chinese Factory Workers

For most consumers (the ones I’ve spoken to anyway), where something is made is usually an after thought. The purchase is made and taken home then those who are interested enough will check the label.
So most people really aren’t too bothered where something is made as long as they get the product they want for a price that they are willing to pay. Yet when you ask people how they feel about manufacturing being outsourced to developing countries the response is usually along the lines of ‘it’s terrible, these people work for pennies in appalling conditions’ and that they would never willingly support it. So what are conditions actually like for the average Chinese factory worker?

Let’s start by looking at what laws the Chinese government have in place to protect their workers. The PRC labour laws of 1995 are surprisingly comprehensive. Some of the main areas they cover are; minimum wage, working hours, overtime pay, health and safety, child labour and labour disputes. There is a maximum workweek of 40 hours, minimum wages are decided locally to cover the cost of living, overtime must be paid at a fixed rate, workers must have at least 1 day off per week and wages must be paid on time without deductions (without good reason). Sounds good enough does it not?
In reality these laws are rarely followed. The problem is that whilst the labour laws may be adhered to for the local residents, a huge majority of Chinese factory workers are migrants coming from rural China. These workers can expect to work much more than 40 hours per week, have just 1 or 2 days off per month, be paid just £50-£70 per month and have money taken out of their wages for breaking trivial rules which the factory has set (such as talking whilst working or having too many bathroom breaks). It is also common for the factory to withhold their employees first 2 months wages as a ‘deposit’ which they receive when leaving – making it hard for migrants to move onto a better paid job (which often come up unexpectedly and must be taken almost instantly before the chance disappears) or leave without consent of the factory owner (which is not always given). One of the main problems is that the migrants are generally looked down upon by local residents and government officials and therefore treated as second-class citizens to whom the ‘rules’ do not apply. It is also usually the case that migrant workers don’t actually know their rights under the PRC’s labour laws of 1995.

Why, then, are thousands upon thousands of migrants arriving at these ‘factory cities’ every year? Why does China’s cheap labour force and cheap manufacturing industry continue to thrive? For most migrants the appeal is the independence, the chance of a new way of life – leaving behind their parent’s small farms and quiet rural settings. Most migrants are young and see it as a chance to travel and ‘see the world’ – although this may seem confusing to us as they don’t actually leave China, the average rural dweller in China would rarely leave the small group of villages in which he or she was brought up. With so many young people from all around China arriving at the same places it’s also a great chance to meet new people. So it’s not all bad, there also the accommodation provided by the factories. Most factories will provide a place for their workers to live whilst working at the factory and although this is usually very basic, with up to 10 workers sharing one dorm style room, it gives the workers a secure and steady place to live.

Of course, not all factories are the same, not all factories ignore the rights of their workers. One such factory is the EUPA factory in southeast China. EUPA has a massive complex, housing 17000 workers and pumping out tens of millions of domestic products per year. Factories such as this one; do comply with the maximum working hours per week, pay their workers a fair wage on time and on top of this provide them with many benefits. The workers live there, they eat there (in one of their 5 different themed cafeterias which are subsidised by the company to keep the cost of meals down), their children go to school there – they can even get married on site! There is also opportunity to move up the ranks, if you’re good enough at your job and you work hard you can be promoted to line manager and continue to work your way up. Being promoted comes with the benefits of better pay and more spacious accommodation. One of the main reasons that EUPA can afford to treat its workers so well is the size of it’s operation which in turn means that it has consistent, reliable orders from its customers.

conditions in the majority of Chinese factories are not what many of us in the west would consider acceptable although there are some exceptions to this rule. Yet we also have to take in to account the fact that the majority of the people who are migrating to these factories are choosing to do so in the hope of a better life – lifting themselves and their families out of rural poverty

Do People Care where their Phones come from?

Mobile phones are now the centre of people’s lives.  You only have to consider the implications when it is lost or misplaced to realise the grip it has on us.  No calls or texts, no email on the go, no Facebook or twitter updates, no Internet at your fingertips, no communication with the world.

Considering the impact these devices have on our lives it is strange that most people have little or no idea where their phone comes from.  As far as they are concerned they come from the phone shop.  They walk in to upgrade and leave with the latest model.  The old one is then discarded, often passed down the mobile phone food chain to a relative. I asked some of my family and friends if they knew where their phones come from.  The reaction was mixed.  A lot of them say China.  They would be correct in that assumption.  Around half of the world’s phones are manufactured in China.  I put another question to people though. How is your phone made?  This has most people stumped.  Not because the complexity of the devices themselves, but by asking who actually builds them.  “Is it robots or humans?”, I ask.  I got some interesting answers.  Most people answer that it is a combination of the two, guessing that robots make the circuit boards and people assemble the basic components on a production line.  Some people thought phones are so complicated now robots must do it all.  In reality if a component can be assembled by hand, then it is.  Robots are rare on Chinese production lines and are only used if the components cannot be assembled by hand.  However it is extraordinary what Chinese workers can achieve.  They can fit extremely small components together on a constant almost never ending production line without great difficulty.  The cost of labour is so cheap in China compared to the cost of robots, it makes financial sense to use Chinese workers to do as much of the manufacturing as possible.  The downside to this is the human cost.  Long shifts doing repetitive processes can result in repetitive injury strains and health issues.  This is the reality that Chinese workers face.  Very long working hours doing mind numbingly repetitive tasks.  How many people really consider this when using their phone?  Are people aware of the human cost that goes into making their phones? Do they even care?

Most people I spoke with are aware that China is probably where their phone was made.  However, they certainly were not aware of the amount of human effort goes in during the manufacturing process.  I’m not suggesting that we should boycott phones made in china, nor am I suggesting any slave labour.  Britain had much worse working conditions a hundred years ago and comparable working conditions the 1950’s and 60’s.  The fact of the matter is that China has a huge population of workers willing to travel huge distances to work.  They are highly motivated to better themselves.  The jobs they take up are far better paying and much less back breaking than the usual agricultural work they may have found themselves in previously.  Typical factory pay can be between around $50 – $200 dollars a month, which doesn’t sound like much.  But when you factor in that this is relative and meals are only a few cents and rent can be as low as $20 – $100 a month then the standard of living is much higher than we give credit for.  People in countries in Africa are in much more poverty than people in China.

I think that it is important to know about the people who are manufacturing your phones and indeed any of our goods.  I think that it is important to realise that what we take for granted as a simple free upgrade, Chinese workers spend hours assembling by hand.  They spend hours upon hours assembling mobile phones that they will never be able to afford.