Made In China

Recently, my eyes have been opened to the working conditions in Chinese factories and the lives of their migrant workers, through books and documentaries such as Factory Girls and China Blue. Every year millions of young men and women travel from their homes in poor farming villages to the cities, in an attempt to work their way out of poverty. They are looking for jobs in one of China’s many sprawling factory complexes, in order to earn money to send home to their families and build a new life. They see this migration from the countryside as a great opportunity, a chance to better themselves and make their families proud. However, for many of these migrants, the reality is harsh working conditions, long hours and very little pay…

As a textile design student, I think it’s important that I look into the working conditions many migrant workers face in Chinese textile and garment factories. I did a bit of research, and what I found was unsettling. It seems that once someone gets a job in a factory, they are somewhat trapped. Young and in a lot of cases naïve, new employees are rushed into signing contracts, without being given a chance to read them, and most likely never given a copy. They are often rushed into the workplace on the same day as applying, and sent to work, with minimal to no safety training, just a brief run through of their responsibilities. Once employees have started working, it is immediately very difficult to leave the factory. It is likely that if an employee works less than a certain time before leaving, for example a week or even a month, they will receive no wages at all. In a lot of cases if you attempt to resign before you have done a couple of years work at the factory, you will be fined a substantial amount of money. Workers tend to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes even more during peak season. Payment is below minimum wage and sometimes does not cover the cost of living. In fact, garment factories in particular are apparently amongst the lowest paying in China. Also, more often than not, workers are not provided with paid sick or maternity leave.

The harsh conditions at some garment factories also pose a major health risk to workers. For example, factories are often very hot, with little or no ventilation, this can be a huge health hazard when employees are forced to work in these spaces using various dyes and chemicals, with no gloves, masks, etc, to protect them from fumes and hazardous materials. Workers using concentrated dyes in these conditions on a regular basis can end up with breathing problems and other serious health issues.

I wonder how many people here in the UK take this into account when buying their clothes? Clothes that may have been produced in factories just like this…

I did a bit of asking around, and the general response I received was that people don’t tend to check out where a garment has been made before purchasing it, where and how clothes are made isn’t something that most people usually think about unless it’s brought to their attention. I asked if people would prefer to buy clothing that had been made in the UK rather than in China, and the majority said yes for various different reasons, whether that be supporting the British economy/clothing industry, better quality garments or so they’re not supporting factories that mistreat workers. However, I then asked them if they would still do so if the British made piece were more expensive, and the response changed. People said they would pay more ‘within reason’ or ‘to an extent’.

I’m embarrassed to admit, that until now, I can’t say I paid a great deal of attention to where my clothes were made either. I had a quick look through my wardrobe the other night, and found that quite a few things in there had been made in China. I asked myself the same questions I asked others, and firstly I thought to myself, yes, I’d do my best to buy the good quality, ethically produced British product, but on reflection I suppose I’m rather conflicted. On the one hand I don’t feel comfortable supporting factories in China that take advantage of vulnerable, young workers, but then again, if I don’t, will I be putting an already poor person out of a job and forcing them back into a way of life they tried so hard to leave behind? Also, with almost every big high street clothing retailer opting to produce their stock in China and elsewhere in Asia, I wonder how easy it is to buy clothes that you can be assured have been made in the UK? As a textile student and general consumer, I find this entire topic fairly worrying and can’t help but feel guilty. It is certainly something that I wish to research further and perhaps consider when thinking about my own work.

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.

Products made in China? Or not.

Products made in China? Or not.

For some time now, products have been produced in China for a fraction of what the west could produce them for. Taking this in to consideration, how are the workers affected by this and do the public of the UK even care? Personally, I know where most of my clothes come from, but sometimes it is harder to pinpoint this accurately. A few of my own clothes have been designed in the West, but physically made in the East. The reason for this? Cost?

The cost of clothing, electrical products and other ‘necessities’ are super cheap to produce in the East, due to workers staying in the factories, working stupidly long hours and the actual costs of living in China and similar countries. The book, Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang highlights the stories of many Chinese girls, often young, coming into the cities to work and earn a way of life. They are interviewed, but rarely get to see inside the factory or their living quarters before hand. Living quarters are usually horrendous, compared to Western standards, and as many as 12 girls can share a ‘dorm’. Is this acceptable?

Quite frankly it’s not acceptable, but the West still exploit this scenario and China allows its workers to live this way, often on very poor wages. Make no mistake, the cost of living is very cheap in China, but when the West come calling, the workers suffer. In contrast to that statement, the factory owners will see this as a great opportunity to get business from the West, possibly open up a new factory etc, thus lining their pockets, and making the divide between the rich and poor greater.

As a friend of mine once said:

‘We’re born, we try, succeed, then die.’

This is certainly true of the Chinese factory workers way of life. Sometimes though, workers don’t succeed. What happens to them? They can disappear in the streets of hundreds of thousands, and never be seen again, or they can move on to another factory if they find their original employers ‘not suitable’. This means starting all over again, and with little qualifications, this can be difficult.

This brings me to the West. Are we over qualified and over expectant on pay, to produce such items? The answer is no. It all comes down to money, and if a company in the West can ‘acquire’ a factory to work for them, produce more units per hour and pay workers a tenth of what the West equivalent would be, then why should they have it in the West? Would you be happy paying more for the same product if it was produced in the West?

I adventured into Dundee with my assignment group and decided to ask the general public some questions about China and production of goods over there. The three questions were:

Do you have any idea where the majority of your products are produced?

-Are you willing to pay a bit more money for clothes if you knew they were made in better conditions?
Do you own any Apple products and/or know where they were manufactured?

Elizabeth and I decided to team up and ask some questions to passers by in the Overgate shopping centre. We first approached a 17 year old female. We first asked if she owned any Apple products, and er response to this was that she owned an iPhone. Even though owning an iPhone, and with all the recent news concerning Apple production in China, the girl didn’t have a clue where any of the parts were produced. I think it’s this kind of ignorance by the young in society today, that really pisses me off.

In comparison to this, we spoke to an elderly lady who seemed to be fairly switched on about a few things. She came to the conclusion that a lot of goods were built in China, then sold for profit to customers in the West. The lady didn’t own any Apple products, and I’m pretty sure she thought we may have been speaking about the fruit…I digress. When asked if she would pay more for a product if it was produced more fairly and with the workers having better living conditions, she answered ‘yes’. She stated that, most people, young and old, need access to a computer at some point in their lives and if the cost were to go up, she would still pay.

After speaking to the public, we decided to ask some shop workers if they knew where their products were from. We ventured into StormFront (Licensed Apple Retailer) and also paid a visit to the SuperDry Clothing store.

Upon venturing into the Apple shop we were greeted by a young man of 22. We cut to the chase as we didn’t want to take up too much of his time. For the first question he stated that it wasn’t a well known fact, or a fact that Apple were happy to divulge, that their products were made in China, and more than likely in poor conditions. When asked if he would still buy the same product, but at a higher cost due to fairer working conditions. He stated that his love for the products came first, but would like to see factory workers being treated fairer. He also owns pretty mcuh every Apple peripheral known to man, so it’s safe to say we have found someone who actually knows what is going when coming to electrical goods.


On our way back to our afternoon class, we decided to pop in to the SuperDry store and have a look at some of the labels. We noticed that some of the more expensive options in the store were made in China, whereas some of the middle of the range items were made in Turkey and India. So it was clear to see that exploitation goes on throughout the whole world, and not just China. Before we left, we asked a 23 year old female member of staff if she knew where SuperDry’s products were made. She stated that she wasn’t sure if she could answer that due to store policy. We then stated that the labels on the clothes say where they are made. I’m not sure if she was all there in the head. She also stated that she would buy the same clothing if it cost more, due to her love for the brand.

In conclusion to what we have found, I think the general public don’t really care about where things are made, as long as the can keep up with their neighbour, so to speak. It’s a sad state of affairs that I find society to be like this. If only more people would take a small amount of time to read a book about exploitation, not just in China, but all around the world, then we could maybe combat the injustice that goes on.

Where your beads come from

I’m hoping to show the documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China as part of the module. It’s an examination of the process of making beads in Chinese factories and what happens to them afterwards. As you can imagine, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

The director has written about the film over on Etsy:

MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA follows the story of four teenage workers who sew plastic beads together with needles and thread and also pull them from a machine. Each story provides insight into their economic realities, self-sacrifice, dreams of a better life, and the severe discipline imposed by living and working in a factory compound. I was eventually kicked out of China under the premise of not having a journalist visa, so I continued following the bead trail to New Orleans in an effort to visually personalize globalization. What I found, and presented in the documentary, is that Mardi Gras beads were hand-crafted and made from cut glass in Czechoslovakia up until the late 1960s. Glass beads were the most popular throws at that time, but a rise in costs, political conditions overseas, and a safety ordinance that cautioned against items that might cause eye injuries all contributed to the decline and ultimate elimination of glass beads and the rise in popularity of plastic ones.

via Mardi Gras: Made in China | The Etsy Blog.

Here’s the trailer