Watch How Foxconn Workers Assemble an iPad

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A Fascination With Copying

For decades China has been renowned for it’s ability to copy and mass-produce foreign designs on a massive scale. It is this mass manufacturing that has been the driving force behind the country’s massive economic boom in recent years. However, as a new generation of young creatives begin to embrace today’s changing China and the new freedom that comes with it, will the phrase ‘made in China’ soon be evolving into ‘designed in China’?

China’s primary industry today is taking sample designs of gadgets, clothes, toys, etc. provided by western companies, reproducing them on a large scale in one of hundreds of thousands of factories, to then export back to the west to be sold. To be able to do this and do it well, meticulous attention to detail is key, and this is something the Chinese have certainly mastered. Team this with an abundance of workers willing to work long hours for little pay, and it’s no surprise so many companies, big and small, both high end and low end, choose to manufacture their products in China. No wonder it’s been labelled ‘the world’s factory’ seeing as only a tiny percentage of goods produced in China’s factories actually stay in China, the rest end up in shops all over the world.

However this Chinese fascination with copying foreign designs is no longer simply a means of successful mass production for foreign companies, it has become a part of everyday life in modern China. Whether it be American style homes and suburbs, British style villages or imitation and counterfeit goods, this obsession with copying has spread through all parts of Chinese consumer culture.

Counterfeit Capital of the World…

Chapter six of Karl Gerth’s As China Goes, So Goes the World, explains how consumers live in uncertainty due to the huge number of low quality counterfeit products on the Chinese market.

Brand owners in China estimate that 15 to 20 percent of all prominent branded goods in China are actually counterfeit…’

Sometimes there’s no way of telling what is real or what is fake until it’s too late, as victims of countless counterfeit scandals, such as the ‘big-head-baby’ formula scandal of 2004, have found out.

Shanzhai Culture…

Gerth also explains the concept of Shanzhai culture, when copies of popular western designs, most commonly mobile phones, are passed off not as fakes but as imitations, usually with similar sounding names, far lower prices and sometimes with more features to suit the Chinese market. These shanzhai products are not viewed as negatively as counterfeit products, they are sold openly and have ‘gained a level of social acceptance’. These ‘imitations’ are interesting, because although the appearance of the product has been copied, shanzhai manufacturers often add features, alter programs and change certain aspects of the design, therefore, in Gerth’s words, ‘blurring the line between imitating and originating.’

Thames Town…

30 km from central Shanghai, you will find Thames Town, a town made up of English style houses, streets, parks, shops and churches. Everyday soon to be married Chinese couples flock here to have their wedding photos taken against this bizarre backdrop of a perfect English market town.

Copy Artists…

I recently watched a documentary called Copy Artists, that explored the town of Dafen in Shenzen, a town famous for its oil painters. However the majority of the painters that live and work here are not creating works of their own, they are working in assembly lines, producing imitations of famous paintings to sell. Most of the people who work in these assembly lines are art students, working to pay their way through their studies, but others are struggling artists who have never been able to make a living selling their own work. Despite the high quality and amount of effort that goes in to each and every painting, workers earn very little, probably about as much as factory workers do in the city. People have argued that this process of copying classic pieces to sell is wrong, but the studio owners behind them argue that because they are not trying to sell their pieces as the original and are always open with the fact that it is merely an imitation, that it is perfectly ethical and not counterfeit.

A New Generation…

It is exciting to know that to counteract this copycat culture, an aspirational new generation of creative people with big ideas now have the freedom to express themselves and open the door to make way for a new way of design thinking in China. This generation are not content with copying foreign designs and are striving to push China in the direction of not only making, but also designing their own products. The documentary China Rises: City of Dreams, features Shanghai based fashion designer Jenny Ji. In an interview, Jenny sums up the attitude of this creative generation and their new found freedom…

‘I’m a designer from the new generation and I feel great. I don’t have the old restrictions and boring attitudes…

The old pessimism has gone, and I can embrace the new changes. I’m always dreaming of the choices available to me…’

Fuelled by a society that is bursting with confidence and originality, the future of China has the potential to be one of design and innovation rather than simple replicating and manufacturing, an exciting thought for any young designer like myself.

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.)

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.