Financial Times reporter Harney paints a vivid portrait of factory life in the country that sells consumer goods for the lowest price possible.
With a manufacturing workforce of 104 million people, China dominates global production of consumer goods, selling everything from clothing to computer parts at half or even one-fifth the amount that it would cost to make them in the United States. The author, who lives in Hong Kong, focuses on the consequences of China’s ceaseless pursuit of economic growth, from unethical business practices to pollution to an epidemic of occupational diseases. Drawing on interviews, she takes us into factories and their dormitories to show youths who have flocked from the countryside to take dangerous manufacturing jobs. We meet 17-year-old Li Gang, who worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week to earn $39 monthly as a zagong (“dogsbody”), the lowest-ranking employee in a plastic-bag factory; and Li Luyuan, 20, who sleeps in cramped quarters with a dozen other girls, trying to save enough money from her job producing DVDs and sweaters to buy a new home for her parents. These migrants are taking legal action to win better working conditions, posing a challenge to efforts to maintain the China price. Harney brings us into model factories, where rules on working hours and product safety are followed, and into the “shadow” factories (often operated under contract to the same owners) where anything goes in the drive to produce cheaper products. Despite efforts by companies buying consumer goods from China to enforce a code of conduct, most suppliers falsify time cards, hide the use of unapproved materials and otherwise engage in dishonest practices. Western importers know it and often look the other way. In the face of growing labor unrest and pollution, Chinese officials hope to move the economy away from reliance on exports by fostering domestic consumption.
Essential reading for anyone concerned about how dangerous pet food and children’s clothing manufactured in China make it into American stores.