China Factories In Real Life

Digital manufacturing

This Washington Monthly article, Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector, does a good job conveying what really goes on in China’s factories.

I admit to having spent very little time in Chinese factories, but this article certainly jibes with what I have been told by those who have (such as my co-blogger and my law firm’s lead international manufacturing lawyer, Steve Dickinson) and with what I have read on the subject. If you are outsourcing product manufacturing to China, it would behoove you to read this article.

3 responses to “China Factories In Real Life”

  1. “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector” is probably about as good as “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” since -although I have so far regrettably only read the latter and not yet the former- both books are likely to explain just how best to “hit on people” and how to “offer them deals that they (and even Al Capone) wouldn’t want to refuse”.
    And this alhough the American Dude who’s the author and hero of the Economic Hitman is likely to be the much smarter of the two notwithstanding his conveniently a bit late-in-life moral conversion. But then again he’s got someone of no lesser stature than St. Francis of Assisi himself as a possible champion or mentor.
    But just to talk about “Real Life” (and real factories) for just a minute or at least to try to “get real” for a second, there is the story of the Thai friend of mine who sells jewelry and women’s accessories in Bangkok and used to supply himself out of Guangzhou.
    That is, until he went over there to see some of the production facilities with his own eyes. Now he buys in Thailand even though the stuff costs more, and cuts into his profits. But then again, he’s a very good Buddhist.
    But hey, who am I to even indirectly criticize any other religions or saints or even just any of those who are “really” only being regular good guys and CSR-savy business folks?

  2. Speaking of a company with which I am quite familiar, such inspectors can often be bamboozled by a little time wasting on letting them into the plant. Even if they arrive unanounced, simply saying that they have to wait for people to show them around can buy enough time to allow certain things to be fixed before the inspectors can be allowed in. In a large facility there is no way in which such activities could be detected. That said, I have never seen any evidence of practices (other than the denial of resort to collective bargaining and industrial action found through out China – but this is the fault of the government) with which I could not reconcile myself. I deeply disagree with the practice of making workers perform military drill and receive harangues in the morning telling them to work harder, but this is rather more to do with culture than anything else.
    The thing that always disturbed me was that right outside our gates were front-room work shops with machines and woks filled with molten soldier that were being worked in day-and-night – who were these people working for?

  3. These factories have so many tricks! And a company has to have large economic clout to get by with making demands as well as to be willing to put some teeth into its demands by being willing to actually pull the order. Everyone knows about the two sets of accounting books, but did you know about the two sets of factories? The one factory used for “show” and then the real factory a half mile away. Or what about the computer programs that take the real wage and hour information and convert it into the acceptable one? It’s not easy to get to the bottom of it. One of my friends who does these types of inspections finds himself turned into a math genius: to find the real numbers, for example, he physically counts the numbers of workers and numbers of machines running and output per hour. He then multiplies this out to find the actual hourly capacity and compares that to what is being produced. The results rarely add up, and this leads to the next question, “okay, where’s the other factory” or “I can see that the actual number of employee hours is x when you have reported y”. I’m afraid most Americans still really don’t “get it” because there is such a huge cultural divide when it comes to basic expectations about business ethics and human rights. We fail to notice red flags, we tend to take too much at face value. (For example, in your post about the Ningbo bridge, why would you assume it is safe, especially in the long term? Because to make this assumption also assumes that every subcontractor has complied with safety standards — but can you trust that the company that placed the pilings made sure they were grounded properly? In this culture, it’s all about caveat emptor, noticing the details, and making no assumptions.)

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