Scenes from a Chinese FactoryS

My parents sent me to China with two goals: to improve my Chinese before shipping off to college in the fall; to learn about Chinese culture and how China works from an inside perspective. So I visited a Chinese factory.

If you have been paying attention to technology news as of late, you may have heard that Foxconn, manufacturer of all iThings among others, has been having some issues with worker suicides which has brought to light the abysmal working conditions to which it subjects its employees. 10 hour days, no in-and out-privileges, a KGB-like security force, production line rushing–the list goes on. Having just visited a few Shenzhen based factories and talked to various factory owners and operators, I can say with confidence that Foxconn is the exception, not the rule.

We in the States buy so much stuff that we don't need, myself included, but we tend not to think about where it comes from. Sure it's all "made in China," but that tends to be where most people stop asking questions (again, myself included). The fact of the matter is these gadgets we so often take for granted are made by people like you and me who each have their own story to tell. It's important to recognize this. After hearing about all the Foxconn suicides, I found myself feeling rather guilty about ignoring these people for so long. So I decided I needed to see for myself what life is really like for the people who make our consumer lifestyle possible. A few phone calls and emails later, I found myself in the heart of Shenzhen.

Scenes from a Chinese FactoryS

Penthouse view

Before I talk about the factories, I'd like to take a minute to talk about Shenzhen itself. I had envisioned this polluted wasteland where rivers ran black, living conditions were terrible, and soot blocked out the sun. To my surprise, I was greeted by world-class shopping malls, tropical flower gardens aplenty, and luxury condominiums rising thirty-five stories into the clear, blue sky. Apparently, times are kind of hard though because the Ferrari dealership recently closed—just kidding, it was replaced by a Rolls Royce dealer. It's also a surprisingly cosmopolitan city with businessmen from all over China and the rest of the world constantly coming in and out for business. That said, the housing for factory workers offered a pretty stark contrast to the otherwise pleasant landscape. The family friend who was guiding me around town told me that it's not uncommon for five or six workers to live in the same one-bedroom apartment for the entirety of their employment.

The only truly scary part were the roads; not the roads themselves but the people who used them. Traffic signals and lane lines are taken more like a suggestion rather than law. Cars seemed to zig zag across highways and roads which were shared by foot traffic and bike/electric bike traffic (even though there are sidewalks). It was kind of like that scene from Shaun of the Dead where they're dodging zombies in the Phillips' Jaguar, except with hundreds of cars doing the same. It is not uncommon for cars drive straight through a red light without so much as a look left or right. Even police cars and fire trucks weren't given preferential treatment despite having their lights flashing.

Scenes from a Chinese FactoryS

The view from the factory's window

The first factory I visited was an assembly plant where all the components come together to form a finished product. This factory occupied an entire floor of an unassuming-looking office-type structure and was sandwiched by similar factories above and below it while other, similar buildings were going up all around it. When inside, I observed that the lines ran at a reasonable pace; nothing like the horror stories out of Foxconn. The workers were even chatting and joking with each other while they worked. The ceiling fans kept the facilities at a reasonable temperature and the lines were well lit by a combination of sunlight and fluorescent bulbs aided by the all-white interior paint-job and linoleum floors. The labor was tedious but it wasn't laborious and there were no security guards out to get people and no obvious safety violations. All in all, it didn't seem like such a bad way to make a living. (As a side note, when I asked the owner what the hottest product is, he said e-book readers.)

Scenes from a Chinese FactoryS

The second workshop I visited was a lot worse in terms of atmosphere, but that's the nature of the job at hand. Assembling a product from already-made components is one thing, making the components is a whole other story. The component factory I visited specialized in plastic casings for speakers, MP3 players, etc. The smell of melted plastic hung heavy throughout the factory and gave me a headache (which eventually got better after about ten minutes of acclimatization). Although the smell was bad, the worst part about the factory was the noise. There were air guns going off every few seconds or so, and someone somewhere was always hammering away at something. This made work time chatter all but impossible. That said, there was nothing that I or anyone reasonable would consider to be unsuitable working conditions. Although there were a lot of opportunities for injury, precautionary measures were properly utilized to prevent them such as robotic arms for extracting injected casings from the heat, face masks and eye protection as needed, and pulleys on rails to help move the heavy tooling. The foremen were amiable people and showed great hospitality towards myself and their workers. The job these workers have is unpleasant but it is not the result of overbearing production quotas or apathetic management; it's just an inherently unpleasant job—but someone has to do it.

Working conditions aside, Westerners often gripe about the quality of Chinese goods. While this might be true of Happy Meal toys, the same cannot be said lightly about its electronics. At the casing factory, the foreman showed us an example of a product he had made that he deemed to be of unacceptable quality. Some of the casings for this internet radio had hairline fractures in them (or so he claimed) so he offered to redo the batch at great discount. Upon close inspection under bright light, we were still unable to find the fractures but he insisted they were damaged and he would not be willing to sell them. There are motivational posters about quality posted on every wall and pillar of both factories and unlike in many American office posters, these meant what they said.

When I asked the factory owners what they thought it was like to be a worker, they both acknowledged that it's not very rewarding and that most workers can only work one or two years before quitting, but it is a job that someone, somewhere needs to do and if not in China, there's really nowhere else. Chinese people have an inherently strong work ethic and are good at following directions. More importantly, there are lots and lots of them so labor is cheap. No American would be willing to polish a steel mold to a mirror shine by hand and if they were, they definitely wouldn't do it for cheap. That said, they agreed that China will most likely not be able to keep doing this forever and it remains to be seen who, if anyone could fill this role in the future. Americans get the best quality stuff for the cheapest prices because other people do the work we aren't willing to do. Americans often complain about other countries taking our jobs, but I can all but guarantee that Americans wouldn't be willing to do these jobs at American minimum wage, much less Chinese average wage (there is not minimum wage). For now, we should just be happy that there is someone to do these jobs so we can buy cheap stuff.

Michael Zhao is studying in China this summer and reporting his experiences in his saucily named blog.

Illustration: Nikki Cook

Update: When editing Michael's piece, I misinterpreted the very crux of the thing: That the factory that he visited was a Foxconn factory. In fact it was not, but instead a factory operated by Zhao family friends—a fact Michael made me very aware of as soon as he saw my edits. I have changed the headline and the lede to reflect this. The error was completely mine. – Joel Johnson