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.

The Products From China

It seems in the world today most electrical products are made (or assembled) in China. With the cost of labor in China at only $2.05, a huge number of companies are using Chinese workers to produce their wares.

Despite the ridiculously low cost in comparison to the minimum wage here in the UK (which is currently £6.08 if you are over 21) the average pay of employees across China has risen by 22% in the last year. The country as a whole, doesn’t have a set minimum wage for all of it’s employees across all of the provinces. This pay is decided by each province, and because of the rise in pay in each of these provinces, China now has the third highest average pay in developing asia.

Because of the rise in the pay for Chinese workers, many companies have been forced to find workers in South American countries. Brazilian employees are only a few cents more than the Chinese, and are payed just $2.11 an hour.

As an experiment, I had a look at each of the electrical products I have in my room, and out of the 16 electrical items I own (one of which being a kitchen appliance), 10 of these were made or assembled in China.

I also had a look at a few of my flatmates belongings, and found that 6 out of 10 of one were Chinese made and 4 of 8 from another were Chinese made. Out of my 10 Chinese made electrical products, 6 of these were big name brand. These big companies include Microsoft, Apple and Kenwood amongst them.

Through my travels around my flatmates electrical devices, I came across hair straighteners, hair dryers, hand held electrical whisks, irons, headphones, games consoles (both hand held and table top consoles), music devices, phones, cameras (a mixture of digital, film, poleroid, and video cameras) and speakers. These, along with the absurd number of Apple products around my house, the place felt like a home for techies and gamers, not really a place for a house full of Interaction Designers. That being said, out of the 8 Interaction Designers in our house all 43 Apple products are split. The only non Interaction Design student owns no Apple products, which must say something about our discipline as a consumer market.

As I had a look through my flatmates electrical products, I figured out that in my house of 9 people there are 43 Apple products. Many of which (as we know) are made at Foxconn factories in China. As of late, Apple has had it’s ‘Nike moment’ where the quality of working conditions and the low pay of the employees has been brought to light. Another set of incidents at Foxconn factories that has been brought to light by the world is a recent spate of suicides in 2011 that forced Foxconn to put up anti-jump netting around their towers to try and stop it. With 4 deaths in 2011, 14 out of 18 attempts being unfortunately successful in 2010 and 4 deaths between 2007 and the end of 2009.

As I’m sure will be the case with numerous other companies in the future, Apple have been dealing with the issue admirably. From a companies perspective, this ‘Nike Moment’ is a terrible thing to happen, but Apple are not the worst by far, it just so happens that attention has been brought to the treatment of employees by the media.

When I asked my flatmates whether they knew the working conditions in which the factory workers are forced to labour, (with Apple as the exception due to the recent leak of media from Foxconn factories) they had no idea. Most of them didn’t even know that some of their products were in fact made in China, until I asked them to look. I found myself often surprised by the products that told me of their origin, and also the sheer number of Chinese made products I own.

The most surprising for me would most likely be my headphones, which come from a little known Canadian company, despite the size of the company of it’s popularity, their products are in actual fact, made in Chine. On the other hand though, there were things that did not surprise me at all. The Apple products, obviously being some of them, but also my X-Box 360, and Nintendo Dsi.

There were a few products I own that surprised me with the fact that they were not made in China. One of my external hard drives – which comes from a very large, particularly well known computer technology company – that was actually made in Belgium was a real shocker, as generally computer components are known for being mass produced easily and cheaply in China. This hard drive and my mobile phone both surprised me. My phone, which is made by Nokia (a Finnish company who are known for the phones we all loved from growing up) was in fact made in Finland. The fact that the company is owned and run and produce their products all in the same relatively small country (in comparison to a place as large as China), is hugely respectable.

Almost all of the people I spoke to about their technological products wouldn’t have thought twice about where they are coming from and the conditions the workers are in on a daily basis. They wouldn’t make any effort to look for products that were specifically made or not made in china. And perhaps more influentially, many of them said that despite them receiving news and information about Foxconn’s conditions, they would still by Apple products.

Sometimes in the world, fashion and brand is worth more than the comfort of a human being.

TOXIC TOYS

While I was researching assignment 3 I was looking in the Dundee disney store to see if toys from popular companies were also made in China. As I expected they were and what surprised me with the harder toys was the quality of painting and the toys didn’t look stable or worth the 20 or so pounds that were being asked for them.

While I was thinking about the toys I remember a story about toxic lead paint being painted on Children’s toys by accident. Not only were they shipped out but they were put on Shelves and sold to People who planned to give them to their children.The Pizza play set  was found to contain over 90 milligrams per gram in total of lead. Lead is toxic to children even at low exposure but Luckily the health board did tests on the toy and it was recalled. Although people had already given this toy to their children and risked their children’s well-being due to a mistake which should have never of happened.

More and more of these stories started appearing as I looked more in to this subject. Some of the stories I made me think I had read the title wrong as they were just utterly ridiculous! I read the heading ‘ China confirms toxic ‘ date rape’ substance on toys. Apparently China had to recall toy beads from Britain due to them containing the date rape drug rohypnol. Beads started sickening children and some even became unconscious after swallowing the beads. Other effects were breathing problems, seizures and drowsiness. Some of the worst effects on children could have been coma or death, luckily none of children suffered from these.  Lead paint seems to be quite a popular paint for Kids toys that are made in China as  Fisher-Price Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and 83 other types of fun toys were recalled in 2007 due to high amount of lead.

British standards and quality control for products especially food or children’s toys are very high so why is it acceptable to accept imports from countries which cannot adhere to our regulations. Is cheaper toys worth risking a child’s life for? After all a child can’t play with an elmo toy after it’s died from lead poisoning!

It seems their is a steady flow of stories and reports on Chinas quality scandals. This ultimately has tarnished Chinas image as a reliable exporter of goods. But since it is the cheapest way to import goods to other countries they are still allowed to export things which they have again and again mucked up. The Chines government has tried to increase inspections, selectively punishing companies and launching public campaigns to boost quality. Can they really be trusted to make sure mistakes don’t happen or are these measures just to make the outside investors more comfortable?

Their are so many factories that churn out thousands of products every day so no wonder the quality control gets left behind. You are always going to sacrifice important things when you rush a job. Heated competition among factories and rising cost of labour, land and fuel sometimes put pressure on profits, causing producers to cut corners!

China is not just exporting dangerous toys they are also the biggest source of potentially dangerous  appliances and other merchandise according to the European union. Over 1,600 products were pulled from shelves in one year. More and more products are being detected as dangerous but are being destroyed before they can reach the european market. Goods are being checked more often and stricter rules are coming in to keep us safe from China’s mistakes. But the main problem is people need to buy cheap products and China supplies the cheapest so we will always have dangerous products entering our country. Unless all guide lines and rules are compulsory and checked constantly which is not going to happen while demand is so high.

Public awareness of the production process

Chinese factories and labor are seen as such a taboo in the British media with large companies being outed for using them. Are there two sides to these stories? Many Chinese see these factories as a way out of poverty and although most British shoppers is that this form of labor is wrong and would perhaps shop else where if they knew the shops they were buying from were using Chinese factories they would perhaps choose not to shop there.

The gap between the rich and poor people in China is still increasing even with the government’s initiatives to try and prevent this. Rural children and young adults are very ambitious there is a big cultural difference between China and the UK for many young Chinese family is very important to them and they want to support them and make them proud. They see the factories as a way of doing this; many of them are provided with an education. The income they gain from working in these factories keeps them out of poverty.

Obviously there are problems with some factories. The working conditions, the hours, child labor and the factories are never portrayed in a positive light. Every country that has become wealthy has had a period of laboring. An example in Britain is the coalmines and jute mills. So China is in a sense having its industrial revolution. As wages increase and people become wealthier and more prosperous in the country it is evolving into an ideas country and the laboring moves to a country wit cheaper labor, currently Vietnam.

Many shoppers are unaware of where the products they buy come from unless it is written on the label. Products made in Britain tend to be more expensive due to labor costs and people expect a better wage and also handmade products are considered good quality. Although when comparing the differences in wage between a British worker and Chinese worker may be vast there are also big differences in living costs and the price of food and where someone living in China could live comfortably off a certain wage someone trying to live on the same wage in the UK would struggle. So this is a consideration to make when thinking about these factories, but as things become more expensive expected wages will also rise.

Competition between big companies means they are striving to keep costs down. This is the main reason they use foreign factories with cheap labor costs. Many shoppers when asked saw big factories as a negative thing especially for the workers. They also mentioned that they generally didn’t know where what they were buying came from they also said when asked that when shopping the main thing they look at is the price. So to compete on the market companies must try to keep their costs low.

The convenience of buying in this country means people have become complacent. The journey the product has undertaken is not thought about. People care mainly about the price of the product. When asked whether they would buy a western product or a Chinese one they said the price would be the deciding factor. This may have been because most of the people interviewed in Dundee center were students who are low on disposable income. Although they did also comment that if something was of a higher quality they would consider paying more for it.

This raises questions about these big companies and whether new smaller, local businesses can set themselves up in the current market. With modern companies using cheap labor and creating production on a massive scale to provide these cheap products the market ask for is the more personal business losing out even if it is a better designed product?  Chinese factories provide opportunities to the people of China as an initial way out of poverty but are also in a way preventing growth of local business in other countries and preventing creative alternatives.

Companies are very wary of telling their customer where their products come from because it’s a taboo after big media cases such as Nike. Awareness of where something comes from should be more widely known around point of sale of the item or in the market place. This will take away the hidden elements of the production process so people know exactly what they are buying and whether it is the best option for them.