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A Single Chinese Town Makes Most of the World's Christmas Decorations

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At this point in time, you've already hung your tinsel and decorated your tree with blinking lights. Maybe there's even a glowing Santa statue on your lawn. But did you ever step back and think about where all of these holiday decorations come from? A factory in China is the easy answer. An entire town of factories specializing in Christmas cheer is the correct answer.

It's not as cheerful as it sounds, though. Several journalists have recently visited the Chinese city of Yiwu, where low-paid workers in 600 factories manufacture 60-percent of the world's Christmas decorations. Many of them work for less than $1 an hour.


While it may seem like being surrounded by all those good tidings seems like fun, it looks like a nightmare. A new set of images from the Sina News Agency shows workers covered in red dust wearing surgical masks and standing in some sort of Hell den. It's the inside of a factory that produces ornaments and trinkets coated in red felt. The Guardian describes the conditions:

Together with his father, [Wei] works long days in the red-splattered lair, taking polystyrene snowflakes, dipping them in a bath of glue, then putting them in a powder-coating machine until they turn red – and making 5,000 of the things every day.

In the process, the two of them end up dusted from head to toe in fine crimson powder. His dad wears a Santa hat (not for the festive spirit, he says, but to stop his hair from turning red) and they both get through at least 10 face masks a day, trying not to breathe in the dust.


It's obviously not a huge revelation that China is home to some abhorrent working conditions. But it's also important to realize how that silly Santa hat you bought for a holiday party cost you a dollar comes at a much higher cost. The BBC's Tim Maughan reported from Yiwu this summer:

I watch a girl sew white fur trim on to red felt at the rate of about two hats a minute, and as she finishes each one she simply pushes them off the front of her desk where they fall, silently, onto an ever increasing pile on the floor.

Upstairs is the plastic molding room, mainly staffed by young men, stripped to the waist because of the heat… The men feed plastic pellets from Samsung-branded sacks into machines to be melted down, and then pressed into molds to make toy snowmen and Father Christmases.


While many people are getting increasingly excited about buying American-made electronic and local produce, remember where all those cheap commodities come from, too. That glowing Santa, for instance:


If you're still having a hard time picturing it, watch this video from Toby Smith who traveled to Yiwu a couple of months ago and documented the working conditions. He follows the decorations from the factory floor to the freight ship that will bring them to the United States. And even though she's thousands of miles away, you'll never get that image of the poor Chinese girl at the sewing out of your head after you see her make a mountain of Santa Hats. [Sina, Guardian, BBC, Quartz]

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Chinese workers earn $1 a day in these factories. That was a rounding error on our part. They actually earn less than $1 an hour—around 70¢ to be exact—working 12 hours shift, six days a week.


Photos by Toby Smith / Getty