Made in China (Part 2): The Factory We Didn't Really Like

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fabule Fabrications visited a number of factories during our participation in HAXLR8R, a hardware startup accelerator based in Shenzhen, China. During a three-month period we designed and prototyped a cute and deeply adaptable lamp, lining up component sources and manufacturers as a part of this process. Emerging from this program, we’d like to share some of our experiences visiting various factories and learning how many of our everyday things get made. This is the second in a series of posts on this topic, and it's about a factory that we decided not to work with, partly because we weren't fully comfortable with working conditions. (Our first post brought us to Jetta, who makes Makerbots, Furbies, and other consumer products.)

Jetta was a pretty high end factory, with indicators of pretty good working conditions. Here I’ll be presenting some photos and notes from a lasercutting factory that actually made us a little bit uncomfortable. We decided we wouldn’t be working with them because we weren’t entirely happy with the working conditions, though the products they made looked pretty good, used sophisticated techniques, and were absurdly inexpensive.

I’m not going to name-and-shame the specific factory, because I think there are a lot of operations very much like it around Shenzhen, and singling out just one won’t do much good. I believe that a more productive way to engage with factory labor practices is for more people to develop good judgment about who to work with and who to avoid, how to spot out good vs. bad workplaces, and so on. We’d read Lisa Fetterman’s guidelines before coming to China, which is a great starting point for entrepreneurs. But we still came into the program almost implicitly expecting a “bad” factory to look like something out of a Dickens novel, or perhaps an Orwellian dystopia (maybe because we’ve read too many sensationalist horror stories about Foxconn). The absence of obvious Dickensian oppression, however, doesn’t mean everything is a-OK in the factory. This is why we thought it was useful to provide an example of not-so-great working conditions and describe exactly how we judged the factory to be not-so-great.

There were two portions of the factory that we took in on our tour. The first thing we saw was a sort of workshop-setting, just one big room where a few people were working with a huge, high-powered metal-cutting laser. It was pretty cluttered and ad-hoc, with some of the guys actually climbing onto the bed of the laser cutter to lay out the material, and piles of scrap around the room. This alone probably wouldn’t have put us off entirely, because it had a workshop feel rather than a factory feel, where the “just get it done” way of working didn’t feel totally out of place.

adjusting the work piece on the laser cutting bed
Adjusting a work piece on the jumbo laser cutter bed.

laser cut aluminum scraps
Laser cut aluminum scraps.

We then visited another portion of the factory that primarily cut acrylic. This was much larger and more what we’d expect from a factory rather than a workshop, with assembly lines and workstations. We saw the worker dormitories on our way in, which looked a bit shabbier than average from what we’d seen.

worker dormitories
Worker dormitories.

There were laser-cutters for cutting out or etching pieces, as well as equipment for post-processing like bending, drilling and stenciling the cut pieces. This was where we started to have misgivings, pretty much as soon as I smelled the laser-cutting room. Cutting the acrylic generated some strong-smelling fumes, which are no good for your health, especially if you’re breathing them on a daily basis. The ventilation wasn’t great and we didn’t see anyone wearing effective filtering masks. All the cutting took place with the laser-cutter lids open. We’d seen this before in smaller workshops, but in those cases there was also a cross-breeze that wasn’t present here.

cutting with the lid open
This smelled more interesting than it looked. Alas, it doesn’t really come across in a photo.

We also saw some people doing post-processing of laser-cut acrylic quilting guides. These has some print and graphics screen-printed on them. This was another room that had a smell, but no particular ventilation and no face-masks.

screen printing
Screen printing some labels onto the laser cut piece. No mask or special ventilation, but kind of solvent-smelly.

finished quilting guides
These ended up being piecing guides for quilters.

On some issues, you just have to use your spidey-sense to infer some things. Lisa’s MAKE article suggested that it’s hard to confirm whether workers get regular breaks except by observing whether you actually see some workers taking breaks. In our case, we were a little bothered to see a lot of the line workers taking their lunch at their work station, suggesting that they didn’t have any other space to be on break. It was a bit of a subtle thing: if you’re looking for workers who seem completely miserable you’ll probably be disappointed. These line workers were convivial with each other, joking around while waiting to clock out. But we didn’t think that the absence of abject misery made the working conditions totally OK.

line workers clocking out for lunch
Line workers clocking out for lunch. They were conversing and laughing.

line workers eating at their work stations
Line workers eating at their work stations. A sign that they don't have a break area away from the factory floor.

There are surely worse working conditions to be found, both in China and elsewhere… probably even in the States. Most of the factories we visited around Shenzhen were actually pretty good. These aren’t workers in debt slavery or anything of that sort, and they’re free to find another job when they want to. In fact, pretty much every factory manager we talked to said there were more jobs than workers locally, and that people left all the time for jobs they found more appealing. A job market that favors worker mobility probably does have a positive effect on working conditions, though it could still just achieve an equilibrium of tolerable-but-not-great conditions. A really big, multi-million dollar client can make demands on a factory to improve working conditions, and it’s been suggested that Apple has been doing exactly that at Foxconn. But many, perhaps even most big corporations will be disinclined to demand changes that might increase their costs. We saw a large pile of boxes at this factory addressed to Walmart in the US.

shipping to walmart
Ready to ship to Walmart in the US.

Because small companies like us can’t throw our weight around (losing a $10-50,000 client wouldn’t be that big of a deal) all we can do is vote with our feet. As more and more small businesses and hardware entrepreneurs come to China to get their stuff manufactured, we can hope that all of us together might achieve some influence, but the kind of time and organization that would require probably puts it a few years out. Any efforts to vet factories and to organize and communicate our experiences to each other would be a positive step in that direction.

Many thanks to Silvia Lindtner, who took some of the photos. Her spidey-sense corroborated ours, in fact, she'd been on a few more factory visits than we had at that point, so her judgments helped us a lot.

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