This July, I had the chance to visit a small clothing printing factory in Dongguan, China. This medium-sized factory with around a hundred or so workers has fulfilled orders from many name-brand clients, such as Nike and Hugo Boss. From Hong Kong, I traveled with the factory owner, and we embarked on a two-hour journey across the border into mainland China.
Eating and living conditions
We arrived at around noon, just as the workers were taking their mid-day break and having lunch at the factory cafeteria. I had already eaten, but I still took a quick peek at the food they were serving and the dining environment. The food looked somewhat appetizing--lunch for that day was bitter melon with egg and other green vegetables over rice. Only the "harder working men," whose job requires more strength and power, receive a small portion of meat. Most ate in the crowded dining room, furnished with tables and chairs, a small TV, and even pool tables. In the midst of the summer heat, the room was dim and surprisingly cool.
We then walked to the dormitory located adjacent to the factory and cafeteria, and I got a chance to check out a few of the workers' rooms. The first of which was a room designated for a manager's family. More spacious than the others, the room has air-conditioning and even an old desktop computer. Inside another room for common workers, a handful of women were eating their lunch here instead of in the dining hall. Each room has six small bunk beds, so up to twelve workers live in a single room--it's noticeably small and crowded. All their belongings are kept and confined to their own bunk space, and some even cover their bunk with a curtain for added privacy.
From around 12 or so to 2pm, the workers are given a rest period and break after lunch is served, and many choose to take a nap after they eat. The workers come from all parts of China, and many are already accustomed to taking mid-day snoozes. Without this period of rest, the owner notes that the workers would not be able to function by the end of the day.
The factory building consists of three stories and also includes the main office. The bottom two floors contain long rows of tables and basic wooden tools for hand-printing. The top floor contain the only machines in the building: a few large iron presses that imprint logos and designs onto shirts and other clothing. Almost all the clothing are printed by hand, with the exception of the iron presses. Blue silk screens of various sizes are used to transfer paint onto clothing, creating your generic t-shirt logos or other fashionable decorations. When asked why most of the printing is done by hand, the owner said that the overhead and production costs would be extremely high and unpractical for a factory of his size. So, more workers are hired to quicken the printing process and to keep up with the demand from clients. Managers are hired for the sole reason of pushing the workers to reach quota goals and meet the quality standards.
The owner recollects one time where some thousands of shirts had a logo printed the wrong way, and the order had to be canceled and money had to be compensated for the client. Because the workers and even the managers have little to no knowledge of English, they apparently did not notice that the letters of the logo were upside down. This mistake went unnoticed until they were sent to the client, and all of the few thousands of wrongly-printed shirts had to be trashed, unfortunately.
Salary and daily life
Interestingly enough, the owner points out that workers are driven by one factor: money. In other words, the workers are looking to send some cash back to their family and hopefully be able to raise their standard of living. They get low pay as a factory worker here, only a few hundred per month, nowhere close to minimum wage levels in the U.S., although housing and food is provided for free. Workers work six days a week and are required to show up by 8 am and stay until the evening, but they are also strongly encouraged to work overtime for some additional income. Workers may work from 8 am to 10pm or even later.
The work life for many may feel dull and monotonous to some extent. That is why many seek out other ways of entertainment, such as mahjong. For some reason, men are willing to risk and gamble a day's or even a month's salary on a single mahjong game, and they usually end up losing it all by the end of the night. Why? Perhaps it's the lack of stimulation or passion for their job. Maybe it's the desire to seek out the excitement when betting against the odds. In any case, gambling and mahjong has become so popular with the men in the factory that they continue to play and gamble their money away.
Working for an afternoon
I even became an aspiring factory worker for an afternoon. I tried my hand at using the iron presses, alining the desired prints and logos before sending it underneath the large press. Not long after I began, the repetitive motions of this task began to tire me, but the reminder of the whole stack of unprinted shirts behind me forced me to quicken my pace and continue on.
Summer in this area is not very wonderful in any way. It's hot and humid, and there are only a few fans in the whole building. Not long after I began, I started sweating and feeling hot and uncomfortable. I really don't understand how the workers can work all day, unfazed by the sweltering summer heat. For a quick moment, I saw a young girl, not much older than me, take a quick break to cool down in front of a fan across the room before returning back to work. Perhaps she was a new worker too?
I also tried other tasks on the other two floors, and by the end of the afternoon, I set out to print a design onto my own shirt. Printing using the silk screens was probably the hardest task I had to face the whole day. Even with the help of the other workers, I still made a few mistakes. I accidentally hit the blowdryer on the half-dried paint, causing an uncorrectable raised mark to appear. I wasn't able to evenly apply the paint and had to have a worker spend extra time to even out the paint. I didn't notice it at first, but the print I made says "Supergirl" in Japanese. Oops. Not that anyone is going to notice.
By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted and ready for a relaxing massage or something of the like. Factory work obviously isn't the greatest or most exciting job of all, but it's the harsh reality that these workers face day to day. To these workers, the opportunity and stable income that factory work provides is enough for them to leave their homes and families behind in order to work in a factory like this--something that I could never imagine myself having to do. As I was reminded as I ended my "shift" and departed back to Hong Kong, everyone in the building had at least five more hours of work left.