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.