There was an interesting piece in the Sunday Morning Post this week about conditions in Guangdong factories. This story seems to have originated with comments from the boss of Ultimo (a lingerie company in the UK), claiming that conditions in the dormitories at factories producing her company's products were similar to that of a 'Travel Inn' (budget motels in the UK). This was followed up by the Daily Record (a Scottish newspaper), which published a story about the low wages and poor conditions for workers in the factory, and the SMP picked it up.
The Daily Record illustrated the story with photographs (reprinted in the SMP) from the factory and a Travel Inn showing that this comparison might not be entirely accurate. I can only assume that Ms Mone was probably shown (and possibly stayed in) a room for visitors or Hong Kong staff. These are often described as 'dormitories' but they are very different from the accomodation provided for the workers. They probably won't be luxurious, but they will have aircon, en-suite bathrooms and privacy. As usual, one rule for the rich and another for the poor!
However, I think she is probably correct to say that this factory (which I have never visited, by the way) is better than most. Western companies do normally visit the factories and check on the conditions, and may insist on improvements before they start to place orders. Nevertheless, this is one of those stories that won't go away. The basic facts are:
- Workers in China are paid much less than their equivalents in Europe or the USA.
- Factory conditions are often not so good.
- Workers are asked to do overtime (or may be given no choice).
All this is undoubtedly true, but the reality is that pay and conditions in these factories are very attractive compared to other 'opportunities' available to manual workers in China. The dormitories may not be luxurious, but they are probably not much worse than the homes the workers will have left behind to come and work in the factory. Also, they normally stay their for only a few years and can earn enough in that time to live quite well when they do return home.
It also needs to be put into context. Conditions in Hong Kong factories 40 or 50 years ago would probably have been worse, and during the Industrial Revolution in Britain life was very tough for the working classes. In fact, let's be honest - working in a factory is not normally a particularly pleasant experience anywhere, and those of us who work in offices have it easy. So when journalists or activists (or just about anyone) from 'Western' countries visit factories in China, it's really no surprise that they are 'horrified' by what they see. You have to wonder whether they have ever been to a factory in the UK!
This story is covered in more detail in the excellent Asian Labour News, which tries to put these things into perspective and separate fact from fiction. Stephen hasn't yet followed up on this story, but in the past he has met with management and visited factories to check for himself after similar stories were published in US or UK newspapers, and often found out that there was much more (or less) to the story than it first appeared.
Interestingly, Ultimo was the subject of a BBC 'Trouble at the Top' documentary that has been shown here on both ATV World and BBC World. The company was struggling to sell its products through traditional retail outlets and decided to withdraw from that market and start offering their gel-filled bras direct to the public. This was fairly successful, but probably not a great strategy for the long term and in fact they nearly went out of business. After finding an investor willing to put in some money they managed to survive, and now they are selling their products in Debenhams department stores and doing reasonably well. They have been in the news recently because they appointed Rachel Hunter as the 'face and body' of the brand, the irony being that she replaced her ex-husband's current girlfriend.
I find it hard to understand why anyone would allow themselves to be filmed for a programme such a this, especially when editing and selection of material can tell almost any story the director wishes, but Michelle Mone came out of it reasonably well. She's obviously a tough cookie and quite straightforward (not to say blunt), and I guess that helps - some of the people who've agreed to appear on similar programs come across as either clueless or devious.
They say that all publicity is good publicity, but the risk is that your customers (or business partners) may discover more than you really want them to know. The classic example of this came when Gerald Ratner described his company's cheap jewellery as 'crap' and customers decided that perhaps they would stop wasting their money buying it. Michelle Mone, on the other hand, came across as someone with a good product who couldn't get the support of retailers and was forced to take drastic action (selling direct to the public).
Time will tell whether her staunch defence of manufacturing in China, and the conditions in the factories she uses, will do her business any harm. My guess is that it will all blow over fairly quickly.