Cheap Prices are Not the Only Story

Jeans by Granny

The photo above shows a common scene in a small city in southern China. That day there was a group of elderly people, two women and a man, sitting hunched on plastic chairs and surrounded by hundreds of pairs of jeans. They looked to be finishing zips and pockets and were all squinting at the fabric, although none were wearing glasses.

The jeans seemed to spill and tumble from a hatch in the side of the building (just out of this shot) right out onto the roadside. The sheer scale of their workload was daunting. I could not imagine my own grandparents having to toil like this.

I took this photo four years ago when I was working as a teacher and it made me determined to seek ways of showing another, more positive, side to Chinese craft-making and manufacturing. The “Made in China” stamp has long been associated with poor work and cheap labour. But that is not the only story in a country so vast and varied. Organic and fair-trade companies exist too and there are hundreds of examples of local workshops and artisans producing beautiful, natural products using methods that have been practiced for generations.

But there is no doubt that millions of people are working in awful conditions around the world, forced by circumstances to accept low pay, scant benefits, and who are denied a voice to bring change. Thank goodness organizations exist to scrutinize and hold companies who operate this way, putting profit far, far above people, to account. A quick search shows negative report after report on factories in China and other places, despite the existence of labour laws, minimum wage, rights to education and international agreements.

I make no claim to inside knowledge on these places, but I lived for some years in Guangdong Province, in southern China, where a huge percentage of all manufactured goods and clothing there are sold in the West. I would pass mile after mile of massive factories on my way to the train station at Dongguan. As work shifts changed, hundreds of people in identical uniforms would stream out along the wide boulevards of the industrial province, seeking out the noodle shops and restaurants along the roadsides.

From the outside it was not possible to tell if their working conditions were good or not. Many thousands of young people move to the region from rural parts of China every year seeking work, often returning with family members to the same factories. This human side of China’s economic growth is described well in “Factory Girls” by Leslie Chang (published in 2008 by Picador). There, Chang portrays the living, sleeping, and working lives of factory workers in Dongguan. Many often struggle to cope with social change and life far from the rural villages they grew up in, while at the same time, loving their new wealth.

Chang’s stories may be changing a little as world economic growth slows down and the West slowly wakes up to this awful inequality. The elderly lady in my photo would, I expect, no more want to be sitting sewing mountains of jeans than my own granny. But this same tale will be told for as long as high street continue to encourage fast, cheap fashionsand we continue to live disposable lives.

While factories can be inspected and legitimate supply chains verified, it is so much harder to monitor the mass manufacturing work that happens away from the big, new premises. It was commonly said, although I never saw them for myself, that whole villages – men, women and children – were routinely engaged in producing one product or one small part or pattern piece, often for large, Western companies. Of course no-one was going into each home to check on the ages of the workers or to ensure they took breaks or worked safely.

Changes have begun, but it will be up to us, as consumers, to ask questions, support those organizations who check workplaces and supply chains and to take responsibility for knowing which companies to trust. I know that there are many, many people in China, as elsewhere, who want to see positive changes and who are quietly doing their bit to work fairly and without harm to the environment or people.

China, like anywhere, is a land of contrasting stories: rags and riches; kindness and cruelty; big dreamers and small minds. Next time you see a “made in China” label, have your eyes open, but please don’t always assume the worst.

KW, Sundibanks, Shetland

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About the Author

Karen Warner is a travelling, writing, teaching Scot, who has recently returned from several years in China and Berlin to live in the Shetland Islands. She has spent the winter pruning back her overgrown garden by the sea and plotting her new venture Susurrus, making beautiful things using fully-certified organic silk from China. Karen believes in equality, the freedom and safety to be yourself, slow and untrendy fashion, and bees. A large part of her working day (when she's not teaching or having a laugh with her husband and sons) is spent in the garden philosophising while watching the blackbirds.

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