What Are The Lives of Chinese Factory Workers Really Like?
Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Misconceptions.
About Leslie T. Chang's TEDTalk
Behind all our material goods, from iPhones to sneakers, is a narrative of exploited Chinese workers with bleak lives. Reporter Leslie T. Chang says that's a disrespectful narrative. She sought out workers in a Chinese megacity and tells their stories.
About Leslie T. Chang
Journalist Leslie T. Chang's book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China traces the lives of Chunming and Min, two young women working in Dongguan, a factory city in South China. Leaving their home villages far behind in pursuit of work, Chunming and Min are part of an estimated 10 million young migrants who work in China's booming factories. These migrants live in a "perpetual present," forging individual and nontraditional lives amid the breakneck pace of manufacturing.
Chang lived in China for a decade as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She is now based in Cairo, Egypt.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today is all about misconceptions. So here's something we all know, right, it absolutely sucks to be a Chinese factory worker. Right?
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Long hours and low wages. Forced labor, dangerous environment...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Work environments are dangerous and living conditions are humiliating...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: And a growing number of these workers are either killing themselves or trying to.
RAZ: Leslie Chang was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in China for 10 years. And she wanted to see for herself if in fact it was so hard to be a worker in a Chinese factory. Here's the opening from her TED talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LESLIE T. CHANG: Hi. So I'd like to talk a little bit about the people who make the things we use every day. Our shoes, our handbags, our computers and cellphones. It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive and that it's our desire for cheap goods that makes them so. So this simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing. Especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty about our impact on the world. But it's also inaccurate and disrespectful. Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills and to see the world.
RAZ: This is like so counterintuitive. This is not what many of us have been led to believe.
CHANG: That was kind of the starting point for my research into factory workers in China - was that everyone always assumes, oh, these poor workers - they're suffering, they're slaves all for the sake of making our iPhones and iPads and iPods. And I was thinking, even before I went down to these factory towns, that can't be true. There can't be millions of people who are leaving their villages and going to the cities purely to suffer. I mean, that isn't how things work.
RAZ: Right, can we go back to the narrative that we thought we knew, right? The New York Times had this whole series on it. There were - there was the infamous stories by Mike Daisey and his one-man show. I mean, where does that narrative come from? I mean, it can't be entirely false.
CHANG: It depends on what you're asking. I mean, certainly there are cases where workers have terrible conditions - where they get injured, where they get killed on the job. What I'm saying is it doesn't happen to every worker, which you might say, of course, that's obvious. We know it doesn't happen to every worker. But when you only write stories about the abuses and the injuries, it really gives people an impression that these people are just suffering 24/7. And that's what motivated me to go down to Dongguan, this factory city in South China, for the first time.
RAZ: What are some of, like, the products that we use that are made in Dongguan?
CHANG: Oh, gosh. Everything. Everything connected with your mobile phone, desktop computer, laptop computers. Nokia has a big plant. Samsung has a big plant. They make handbags. They make Coach bags. The Sports Sac, Dooney and Burke. Clothing, housewares, shoes - Adidas, Nike, Reebok. Plastic - everything. Basically, anything you think of when you think of made in China is probably made in some form in Dongguan.
RAZ: And in Dongguan, Leslie spent about two years getting to know lots of factory workers down there.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CHANG: Certain subjects came up over and over - how much money they made, what kind of husband they hope to marry, whether they should jump to another factory or stay where they were. Other subjects came up almost never. Including living conditions, that to me, looked close to prison life. Ten or 15 workers in one room. Fifty people sharing a single bathroom. Days and nights ruled by the factory clock. Everyone they knew lived in similar circumstances and it was still better than the dormitories and homes of rural China. The workers really spoke about the products they made. And they often had great difficulty explaining what exactly they did. When I asked Lu Qing Min - the young woman I got to know best - what exactly she did on the factory floor, she said something to me in Chinese that sounded like chu xi (ph).
Only much later did I realize that she'd been saying QC or quality control. Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism - the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor. But like so many theories that Marx arrived at, sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, he got this one wrong. Just because a person spends her time making a piece of something, does not mean that she becomes that - a piece of something. What she does with the money she earns, what she learns in that place and how it changes her - these are the things that matter.
RAZ: So this young woman that you got to know, Min, right, in Dongguan, what did she think about how conflicted, you know, so many people are about all this in the West? I mean, would she even care?
CHANG: No. No, they don't. She doesn't and the workers that I've met don't. And that's another huge misconception that I feel about how American consumers see these Chinese workers - in a very abstract way is they assume that that worker is thinking, oh, it's so horrible, the person buying this is so rich and I'm so poor. It's so terrible. My iPhone - I'd have to work five months to be able to afford to buy an iPhone. I mean, they're not thinking these things at all, you know. As far as all the work I've encountered, they're thinking, OK, I want to save this much money this month and then I want to go take an English class. And then I want to jump to another factory and become a secretary. And then I want to marry my boyfriend. And then I want to live in the city. And then I want to - you know, they're thinking about their own plans and their own futures. And the product they're making is exactly that, it's a product. It's just a tool for their own life and their own future. And why is that so different from a worker anywhere else?
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CHANG: The first time I met Min she had just turned 18 and quit her first job on the assembly line of an electronics factory. Over the next two years, I watched as she switched jobs five times, eventually landing a lucrative post in the purchasing department of a hardware factory. Later, she married a fellow migrant worker, moved with him to his village, gave birth to two daughters, and saved enough money to buy a secondhand Buick for herself and an apartment for her parents. She recently returned to Dongguan on her own to take a job in a factory that makes construction cranes, temporarily leaving her husband and children back in the village. In a recent e-mail to me, she explained a person should have some ambition while she is young so that in old age she can look back on her life and feel that it was not lived to no purpose.
RAZ: I mean, that's social mobility. I mean, clearly she moved to a different class. And is the assumption that her children will be educated and won't work in factories?
CHANG: Yeah. I think this story of industrialization and urbanization is a story of millions of people leaving their villages and moving to the cities and becoming middle-class. And someone like Min, she is now living in the city with her husband and her two kids. And, yeah, eventually those girls will become indistinguishable from other city girls. So yeah, it's a huge story of social mobility, which is the story of China.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CHANG: Across China there are 150 million workers like her, one-third of them women, who have left their villages to work in the factories, the hotels, the restaurants and the construction sites of the big cities. Together, they make up the largest migration in history. And it is globalization, this chain that begins in a Chinese farming village and ends with iPhones in our pockets and Nikes on our feet and Coach handbags on our arms, that has changed the way these millions of people work and marry and live and think. Very few of them would want to go back to the way things used to be.
RAZ: Someone might be hearing this lesson and they might say, well, I mean, you're just absolving us of our responsibility in this sort of cycle. I mean, are you?
CHANG: I don't know where that assumption of guilt comes from. I mean, this is the global marketplace. Why is it that when we buy products we automatically have to assume guilt along our purchases, you know? I mean, I think, how does this story of a poor farmer's children making these products tie in with this other image we have of China, which is this monolithic giant that's about to swallow up America? These two pictures kind of don't match, right? So what I get from that is it's good to have this curiosity and to try to figure out more of how - what is the complicated picture of China today?
RAZ: Why do you think the main narrative was so attractive - like, was so appealing?
CHANG: A few reasons. I mean, I think Americans - Westerners - often well-meaning - feel a lot of guilt about all of the wealth that they have and this awareness that the people who're making these products don't have any kind of wealth. And sometimes it can be condescension. Like, assuming that those people who are very poor and ignorant and don't have any thoughts and are only doing this because they have no choice. And when you really kind of look into their lives, you realize that many of them are very intelligent, very thoughtful, have very complicated lives and a lot of inspiration and aspiration for their own futures.
RAZ: Leslie Chang, her book about this is called "Factory Girls." You can find her full talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.