Behind the label 'made in China'

Americans can trace much of what they buy to the workers of Shenzhen

Pang Zhongjun shares a bare cement room with six other men, sometimes 12. They have one bathroom, one shower. The only decorations: A few faded movie posters from "Titanic" and "Mission Impossible" pasted above their metal bunk beds.

He's lived here 11 years. But Mr. Pang is not a prisoner. In fact, he considers himself fortunate.

He earns about $100 a month making sneakers at the Kong Tai Shoes Manufacturing Co. here. Pang is like millions of other Chinese workers who left their poor villages behind in search of something that sounds a lot like the American dream: a better life than his parents, a better future for his children.

The key to that dream is working at one of the thousands of factories that ring the city of Shenzhen, the special economic zone set up by the Chinese government 22 years ago near the border with Hong Kong.

Shoes, shirts, toys, computer components - most of what is labeled "Made in China" - is cobbled, sewed, and glued together in 10- and 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week.

Many of the stories that emerge from this region center on harrowing work conditions and the need for more policing. Job brokers sometimes recruit rural Chinese and then demand return payment over time, reducing their "clients" to indentured servants.

But that's only part of the picture. Interviews with workers at the plant where Pang works, and with others, reveal a complex balance between what the Western media call "exploitation" and what many workers here consider a kind of liberation. For many of those who have lived in rural villages, where the average annual income is less than $200, coming to work in a factory represents the one real chance to move up in the world.

Despite the long hours and low pay, many are able to save enough to send younger siblings to school, build homes, and start businesses.

Relative fortunes are being made here, horizons broadened, expectations raised.

"You give me money, I'll do a job," says Byron Liu Liyong, another worker who captures the pragmatic outlook. "I give you money, you'd do a job, too."

A growing number of migrant workers, in defiance of Chinese law, have decided to settle permanently and raise children near opportunity-laden Shenzhen.

A 'window to the world'

The vast movement of labor has created a city unlike any other in China or possibly the world, where 6 out of 7 people are migrants, most in their 20s and single.

Once a sleepy fishing village, Shenzhen has been transformed into a metropolis of 7 million people - China's "window to the world," as it's called. Fueled by $20 billion of foreign investment in some 22,050 factories, plants, and projects, the city ranks first in the country for per-capita income, number of telephones, spending on education, and car ownership.

Entertainment options include discos, bars, a visit to a decommissioned Russian aircraft carrier - even an amusement park featuring scaled down versions of the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge.

The city's markets are loaded with fake designer goods or one of the half-dozen gleaming Wal-Marts that feature sushi bins and palm trees by the parking lot.

In 1979, China's leaders ringed this experiment in capitalism with a fence, as if barbed wire could keep the profit motive from seeping into the countryside. The project leaped its borders.

Today, few factories are inside the fence. They've moved out to where law enforcement is lax and labor cheaper.

If Shenzhen is a boomtown, then the neighboring village of Luoruihe, home of the Reebok plant, is a rattle-bang boomtown. At night, the village feels like a cross between Las Vegas and an Arab souk. Neon flashes behind street-side fruit vendors. Traffic heads in every possible direction. Prostitutes lounge inside garish, red-lit barbershops.

The streets are packed with young migrants. The handful of people over 40 are beggars. The commercial district is made up of cement-block buildings, factories nestled among stores and dorms.

Outlawed by the government - mainly because of the difficulty of policing workers who bunk within their workplaces - such factories are common. Workers live behind high cement walls and guarded metal gates.

Pushing production for extra pay

At one plant inspected by a foreign firm accompanied by the Monitor, a roomful of women stitch jerseys for a British soccer team. It's 10 p.m., but their work cards say they punched out four hours ago. "We rarely do this, but we've got a rush order," a worker says. A look at the timesheets shows a pattern of illegal overtime.

Middlemen are used by big multinational firms to contract workers, and they are known to ignore regulations.

Foreign firms can't keep track. The workers don't complain, because they earn piecework incomes. More work, more pay. Workers are largely unaware of labor law that requires a minimum salary of 420 yuan (about $50) a month and overtime.

When these conditions were discovered by the firm ordering the shirts, the plant lost its future contracts.

Increasingly, plants are taking a more worker-friendly approach because of pressure from buyers over workers' rights. Reebok has 14 subcontractors making garments and sneakers in China, employing 50,000 workers. Another 55,000 work in factories in Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Subcontractors must agree to pay employees overtime, according to local law, with a 60-hour-per-week cap; provide dorms with a maximum of 12 per room; and allow workers to organize unions.

Reebok monitors health conditions, requiring upgrades to less-toxic processes such as the use of water-based glues. Human rights monitors conduct spot checks and investigate allegations of abuses. The Kong Tai plant even has an on-site social worker.

"That's the trend, toward human rights awareness," says Peter Chiu, head of the KTP Group, which runs Kong Tai. "In the short term it's more expensive, but in the long term, that's where you have to go anyway."

Policing doesn't eradicate the dangers and hardships. Li Wentao, a worker from another plant, lost his hand in an industrial accident - the government estimates 10,000 factory workers are injured yearly. He doesn't regret coming. "There's nothing to do back home," he says.

Many workers have children or wives back home that they see only once a year for 15 days. But that's normal in China, where even white-collar workers send their children away to be raised by grandparents.

A sense of community

On a recent Friday evening, workers prepared for an evening of flirting and mah-jongg, swapping factory clothes for miniskirts and bellbottom pants. Blue work shirts were hung out to dry outside the dorms where most of the 5,500 workers live for a few dollars a month.

A group of the few men at this factory - the majority of workers are female - played pick-up basketball as a clutch of girls shyly eyed them.

Another group of girls sat on plastic stools to watch a movie, their chat ringing with the sharp tones of the dialect of Sichuan, the province about half call home.

The talk drifted: worries about boyfriends, complaints that low orders mean less overtime and money.

These are small-village youths who wanted a little adventure. The money is important. But they wanted to develop themselves, meet different people, maybe strike it rich like an uncle or neighbor.

For many, this work has spawned a surrogate community. Liu Huichang, whose husband works at a nearby plant, prepares for a stroll. "This factory is already my home," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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