“Oh that’s probably made in some sweatshop in China!”
So go the remarks addressing the quality of a product and/or the ethics behind its making. Being half a world away, it’s easy to let rumors rule. Luckily, I’m right here to check things out myself. So from Chinese college (see previous post) to a Chinese factory, New Plateaus is showing you how institutions work in these parts—and, interestingly, how they aren’t that different from each other.
I spent a Thursday touring a factory just west of Zhuhai. Though it is just one of a gazillion factories here, at least it gives us some idea to recall next time you hear about the ominous “factory in China”. Sweat shops? No breaks? Dude with a whip looking over 8 yr olds’ shoulders? Well, at least not where I went…
I had a solid hour commute out to the site. On the way, and probably being a little over-excited for a factory visit, I made chit-chat with the woman next to me with whom I could share a whopping 100 words:
Then she exited and I was left with this motley crew:
Our destination was an industrial park not too terribly different than ones back home. This one was enormous, though, and featured some names you may recognize:
Out here reminded me of “The West” back home: desolate with some hills and mountains. It was even dry and sunny that day for an added, “deserted” feel. Filling in the sparseness are these plants. There are several. Zhuhai is designated as a Special Economic Zone in China. That means there are tax benefits provided for exporting manufacturers. It’s a boon to the area as clothes and electronic manufacturers loom large (and other industries, I’m sure).
Time to hang a right:
Here we were:
You’ve probably never heard of them. That’s because they’re a company for companies. They make common items, but they are masked behind the labels and packaging that graces products by Dell, Microsoft, and Samsung. Because of all the intellectual property, things are pretty secured. Like my experience elsewhere in China, this is done effectively but not coarse:
Soon my friend and tour guide, Twigy, arrived:
We started off. And in this post I focus on the people. What’s it like working in a Chinese factory?
Far away from much, these large plants create communities unto themselves. In America there are great campuses like Google with cafeteria, gymnasium, and the whole ball of wax. Here in China, some take it up a notch. Because of a strong migrant worker culture, some factories offer housing as well. That’s right; employees live here. They never get to leave and go home! Or wait a minute, maybe they’re always home. (I guess this’ll depend on how you see the half-full cup, eh?) But few cars and a willingness to come from long distances means having them stay here 24/7 is the thing to do.
It’s insular, but it’s convenient, and the company works to make living here enjoyable. In this respect, it’s got a similar feel to college. In fact, most of the employees are young and single. So hey, all you students who wish you’d never have to graduate and leave the campus life. Well, here you go! And naturally, other businesses sprout up–eateries, night life–as a result, making these industrial parks seem more like little towns.
The staff were out and about as my arrival coincided with lunch:
Here are some workers exiting the factory:
Let’s see what lunch looks like:
Since the workers were good and chill, I could approach for an easy strike. (Are we talking journalism or hunting?) I talked to one guy, one of many front line workers who live here–there are thousands. Like 50,000. He’s from Hunan province, adjacent to the north. His friend worked here and connected him with the opportunity. That was a year and a half ago. He’s single; other’s aren’t and send money back home to their wife and kids. Some arrive as a family and are provided housing for that. Others meet their spouse here.
My Hunanese interview says he misses his family so enjoys going home twice a year. This again, is one of these situations which isn’t ideal, but it obviously beats what they got back home, hence their presence. It may be tempting to look askance at circumstances in other parts of the world. But for the company and the employee it’s a win-win.
The environment on campus is nice, especially compared with what I’ve experienced elsewhere in China:
Another perk is educational opportunities…
On a another occasion I had the chance to come to Flextronics to help lead their “English Club”, an opportunity for employees to learn and practice their English. Each leader assisted a group with discussion and putting on a skit. Here’s mine:
Here’s one of the skits:
Seeing this lifestyle is a chance to reset preconceived notions and see things from another angle. Heck, people have told me more than once how isolated my upbringing must have been in northern MN! Plus, I can better appreciate our everyday electronics when seeing the humans who assemble them:
Well, them and huge machines. The factory floor is what I’ll get to next time: )
to new plateaus,