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Saturday, 20 July, 2002, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Inside China's sweatshops
Chinese factory
Chinese factory workers endure gruelling conditions

Fifteen years ago Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong, was just a small fishing village surrounded by rice paddies.

Now it's a city of seven million people, virtually all of them migrants from other parts of China. The frenetic pace of change is thanks to the late leader Deng Xiao Ping.

He turned this border area into a special economic zone, a laboratory for the Communist regime's early experiments with capitalism.

Factory worker
Employees work long hours for little money

Guangdong Province now has a booming economy and accounts for half of China's GDP.

But it is an economy powered by millions of migrant workers who are desperate enough to accept long hours, low pay and dangerous conditions because the alternatives back home are worse.

Visiting a local factory, we were ushered into the director's office and served drinks. Then the man with goofy teeth opposite me began explaining something in impenetrable English.

Bad atmosphere

When I failed to understand, he flapped his arms impatiently, knocking over his water. The glass shattered on the tiled floor. Any minute now things might turn nasty.

It had taken ages to find this toy factory. There was no sign over the entrance. It's a dirty pink building in Songang, an industrial suburb of China's miracle boomtown Shenzhen.

We had come to follow up a story about a young woman called Li Chun Mei. Apparently the 19-year-old had collapsed and died last November at the end of a 16-hour shift.

Millions of Chinese people have left the countryside for the cities

Like many of the staff, she often had to work past midnight, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

The girls who shared her dormitory found her lying on the bathroom floor with blood pouring from her nose and mouth.

The bosses, who were Korean, did not deny that Li had died on their premises. They blamed the death not on overwork but on earlier injuries Li suffered when she was hit by a motorcycle.

In any case, at the end of last year she was working for a subcontractor.

That, they told us, absolved them of any responsibility. They produced a document - the contract of Li's employer - signed with inky red thumbprints.

They even gave us a phone number for the supervisor, one Mrs Wu, but when we tried it later, the line had been disconnected.

Cheap labour, low safety

This place is the epicentre of globalisation. There's mile after dreary mile of box-like factories making affordable clothes, toys and electronic goods for Western countries.

One out of every three pairs of shoes in the world is made here. But this global workshop runs on cheap labour and low safety standards.

Labour exchange
Competition for jobs is intense

No wonder some bosses are defensive.

In fact the toy factory owners were furious. Not about Li's death, but about the story, later picked up by an American newspaper.

After it was published, some US retailers had withdrawn their orders.

"A bad mistake has been made", said the man next to me. "You see this has nothing to do with us." And he waved the thumbprint document in front of us again, as if it were a magic talisman.

It was odd, this insistence on the legality of a contract, in a country where labour laws are regularly violated and nobody cares.


Under Chinese law, employees cannot be forced to work more than eight hours a day and overtime must not exceed 40 hours a month.

There's a local minimum monthly wage too of $66. But every single worker we spoke to from many different factories around Shenzhen had at some point either been overworked or underpaid.

More than 100 million rural Chinese have now moved to cities - the biggest movement of people in human history

Usually both.

But this was no time for such arguments. We began to worry that the Koreans might call the police since we'd turned up at the factory without official permission.

We did not want to be thrown out of China just four days into our trip. Restrictions on journalists are - unlike the labour legislation - strictly enforced.

So we nodded understandingly. In the office there were rows of shelves displaying the factory's products.

I noticed that the bright yellow Pokemon and some of the cuddly animals were identical to the ones lined up next to my younger daughter's bed.

When we got up to leave, I'd lost all hope of seeing the factory. But then one of the Koreans pulled up a Venetian blind behind me to reveal a long rectangular window.

Harsh conditions

And through the window I saw hundreds and hundreds of young women sitting at long benches stuffing, sewing and packing soft toys.

Above their heads were bright strip lights - it was like gazing into a fluorescent aquarium.

More than 100 million rural Chinese have now moved to cities - the biggest movement of people in human history.

Zho Shien Pin
Zhou Shien Pin was injured in the factory

More than half of them have ended up here in the southern province of Guangdong. They accept jobs with long hours and low pay because back home there's often no work at all.

Yet some regret they ever made the journey down here.

Like Li Chun Mei, Zhou Shien Pin came from a remote corner of the Sichuan province.

He got a job in a paint factory and was hoping to save enough to build his family a house. But then he touched a high-voltage wire.

The accident has scarred his face and chest and his toes have melted away like wax, leaving just his ankles and heels.

"My mother cried for two months after it happened", he told me. The boss paid 2,500 ($4,000) compensation, but that money was quickly used up in medical fees and by relatives who had to travel down south to look after him.

He's fighting for more compensation but has little chance. Workers are dispensable in a place where there are four or five applicants for every job.

"Who'll employ me now?" he asked. "I came here because I wanted to help my family. Now I'm nothing but a burden to them."

See also:

28 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
01 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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