Frame Two: China Blue

Did anyone watch the short documentary on RTÉ yesterday about Chinese workers … China Blue? I took particular interest in this because I have visited China on a number of occasions and have seen first hand the conditions some workers have to live/work in. So I’d like to share my own experiences.

Now that i’m no longer living in Finland it’s safe enough to tell you what I used to work at although Non-Disclosure Agreements bar me from saying too much. I worked for a Taiwanese company who manufacture … well … everything from game consoles to cars. But the division I worked in manufactured mobile phone parts, both plastics & electronics and our customers were some of the most popular mobile phone producers in the world. Phones like most products in your home are generally produced in China these days and most production as you may know takes place in the South Eastern provinces of China … close to Hong Kong. My job was more or less in the project management side, I was part of the team which dealt with our customers on one hand and our production people in China and Eastern Europe on the other.

Our company had a huge campus in SE China (one of many campuses in China) … going by population size the campus itself was approximately 3-4 times bigger than Galway city. Watching the shift change was like watching Croke Park emptying on match day. It would take us 10 minutes to walk from our building to the main gate and we would meet tens of thousands of employees during that walk. Our company was so big they owned their own construction company who could throw up new factories in a couple of months.

Photo: Tiny snippet of workers getting pre-shift briefing

The campus itself was actually one of the better ones in the province. It was very clean, modern and well maintained and housekeeping was of a standard we would be fairly proud of in Europe (it had to be … there were Western customers visiting regularly). Pay was also half decent … by Chinese standards. But that’s as good as it got generally.

Much of the work in China is done manually (which is why so much manufacturing has left Europe for China) which means there are thousands of workers, often temporary employees, herded into huge rooms doing the same menial tasks over and over for hours on end. Their work spaces are cramped, their work hours long, their break(s) short and the work itself simply mind numbing. For that they get a shitty salary and get to stay in one of the lovely worker dorms. When I say “lovely” I of course mean they are shit holes.

“Why make something in Europe when you buy some Chinese girls for less than $0.50 per hour” – Financial Controller colleague of mine

The people I had most contact with were all educated people. They had the same job title as me but worked twice the hours for less than half the salary. There were days when I was leaving work in Finland at 6pm and still getting emails from the lads in China where it was midnight. They’d be in work again at 6 or 7am. Because of the timelines of the projects we worked on workers would very often have to work on Sunday, and sometimes through the Chinese New Year or their Spring Holiday. No chance of our Western customers skipping Christmas of course.
On top of that those requiring laptops had to buy their own and they all had to pay for their own business mobile calls. Any training courses they needed to do were done in the evening after work.
Anyone in a position of responsibility could expect to see very little of their families during the lifetime of a project.

Photo: Tiny snippet of workers during shift change

One thing made me sick in the documentary last night. Remember the English guy arguing over price of jeans/jackets and told them they would need to cut their price down from $4.3? This is exactly what it is like in the mobile industry. Mobile producers aren’t satisfied with the massive savings they made by switching production to China from Europe (literally millions of $ on a single project), they want to make even more money so they put the squeeze on the Chinese. An average phone these days may cost (very roughly, for main plastics & electronics only) $30 (how much does the average new phone cost you these days? Anything up to a grand), mobile producers would demand that the Chinese supplier cut that down to $25 or risk losing the project. The Chinese producer agrees and in the end it’s the workers who suffer. In fact Chinese companies will often do projects at a loss just to get the project and keep the customer happy.
Then there’s the schedule, it’s faster than Europeans can do but still not fast enough. So the workers suffer even more because they have to work longer hours to make up the time. Of course the customers don’t give a fuck, they need their products at a set time and will put enormous pressure on suppliers to meet their often impossible schedules.

Photo: LongHua

One particular Chinese factory was in the news a number of times, there were complaints over the “sweat shops” where Apple’s iPod were being produced. The iPod factories are as I described above … clean and well maintained … one of the better ones. Which makes you wonder … if these are the better ones, what are the really shit ones like? You can’t help but feel sorry for Chinese workers. And big companies like Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony and all the rest are much to blame. Not happy with the already cheap price they get from Chinese producers they continue to push for lower prices. And what annoys me even more is that companies like Apple are told that ‘this is the way it is in China’ and ‘conditions are better here than in other factories’ like that really makes a bit of difference. They are sweat shops, pure and simple.
Watch out for India, it’s going the same way.

Of course there’s little the Chinese workers can do. They can’t complain. They have to tow the line or face being fired. There’s always thousands waiting to step into their job, so they just get on with it and nobody gives a damn so long as their iPod remains affordable.

I don’t know what we can do either as so much of what we use today is made in China, our computer, our phones, our DVD players, our game consoles, our hair dryers, our kids toys and our clothes! It’s depressing.

Excuse the long rambling post, you can see why I never considered journalism.

Leave a comment


  1. Why do they call the places campuses? Sounds like a euphemism for a work camp. The documentary sounds very good. I’m desperate to live & consume ethically but there are so many thing we need to buy and the origin of almost every product is so well hidden, that unless you do excessive research it’s very difficult (in some cases even impossible) to choose the right products.

    I know absolutely nothing about China today, is their rising economy based on low-cost labour? Then I guess no-one in the government would be in a rush to introduce laws that guarantee better conditions for the workers. Consumer bans could be an effective start, but it take cooperation of the businesses and the Chinese government to change things around and create a better working environment there.

  2. Work camp or hard labour camp would be a good description!
    Yeah it’s all about costs … that’s why so much work has gone from Finland and other countries, because the same work can be done many times cheaper in China, especially manual work which is just too expensive in Europe.
    There probably are laws to protect workers, but I don’t think they are enforced.