Thursday, June 28, 2007

Factory Hopping

On Monday, we visited a speaker factory in a town about 45 minutes to the north of ShenZhen. The countryside looked closer to Africa than anything we’ve seen in China so far. It had the same look, the identical open store fronts filled with fruit, plastic wash buckets and cheap flip flops. The main difference was the paved roads. There was a great deal more concrete, but the same amount of garbage fluttering around and the same decrepit and rusting bikes filled with produce. Although, here in China, many bikes have been fitted with little wagons, which seems to save a great deal of effort and make hauling things a lot simpler.

When we arrived at the compound, Terry explained that all the workers live in dorms on the premises, the factory and owner’s mansion are all housed within the same walls. Before touring the factory, we were taken out for an epic feast. Read about that here.

After a staggeringly delicious meal, we waddled back to the compound and toured the factory. It was fascinating, but sweltering. We were duly impressed with the cleanliness and efficiency of the whole factory, though we were looking a little limp by the end of the tour.

So often, we just take a product out of the box or bag and plug it in without giving a thought to what it took to make that item. Actually, it was quite a long process! Each speaker has many components that need to be carved, molded, painted, wired, assembled, and packaged. The order and efficiency of the lines was staggering and immensely psychologically satisfying to a neat freak like me. I felt the same way when we toured the fish factory in Uganda, it was really incredible to see the meticulous processes that something as ordinary as a fish fillet goes through before you buy it at the supermarket.

Each component had been cordoned off into the smallest possible task so that each person on the line did something simple like put a cap on the end of a cable or snapped the speaker housing together or checked for sound quality or wrapped in plastic or packed into cartons. I can’t imagine doing something like that for eight hours a day. You must absolutely live for your tea break. The tour guide told us that they rotate jobs to stave off boredom, but they are discouraged from talking.

All of this made me think back to my high school history classes when we learned about the industrial revolution and some of the horrible conditions that existed in the Mill towns and so forth. Obviously, we haven't been to many factories yet, but it would appear that in the electronics and food production industries, consumer standards set a high bar for the factories. In general, it makes sense that the factories we will be seeing here are far safer, cleaner and healthier, not necessarily because of benefits to the workers, but because the product requires it. Perhaps a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, but the end result is far better for conditions for today's workers. I would certainly rather work in one of these factories than in one a hundred years ago. Our worldly education continues!

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