Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Made in China

Modern day China is probably most notorious for its immense number of factories that are pumping out copious amounts of goods using such cheap labor that it's bordering on slavery. No wonder that I was pretty excited when I was told, that I was going to work in one of these infamous beasts for a couple of days. 

The work mainly consisted of me trying to tell the Chinese workers how to assemble the machine our company designed. Some might say, that a minor flaw in the concept was that I'm not an engineer - I don't even know how to assemble a kinder surprise toy, let alone a state of the art parking device. On top of that, I don't speak a word in Chinese. The first part was solved by the arrival of a couple of engineers who knew the deal (more or less). The second part was not solved at all, which did not help to speed up the assembly process, but brought a fair amount of light entertainment to the grey routine of the workers' everyday life. The days passed, and I ended up working there for two weeks, so I had plenty of time to observe the unique microcosmos of the factory, which turned out to be rather different than expected...

First of all it's not that bad to be a factory worker in China - or at least not worse than anywhere else. Most of us heard about the inhumane conditions labourers have to withstand at places like Foxconn, but I could not see any trace of this at the plant I was working in. In fact, their schedule was rather lax - at noon sharp the workers had a 90 minutes lunch break, giving them ample time even for a refreshing nap. Not even us could work during lunch break, as we would have woken up the sleeping manpower. One of the most uncanny abilities I have ever seen in a man was how these workers knew exactly when their shift ended - 17:30, and not a minute later - without a single glance to any watch, and shut down the whole complex in seconds when it came, being completely indifferent to any plead to work a little more. We managed to convince them to stay overtime only once, even then we had to take the whole crew out to dinner, before they were willing to lift a single hammer! They are not exactly cheap either - a basic worker, who's job is to do the same four-move-sequence the entire day, brings home around 350-500$ a month. That might not sound too much, but it's around the same wage as in Hungary, a member of the European Union. A skilled craftsman can double this figure, and 12 grand a year after tax is a pretty neat sum of dough, especially if you consider that a lot of them are illiterate - not so unexpected in a country where you have to be familiar with at least 3000 characters to be able to read the papers.

The other surprise was that the workers weren't the kind of mindless drones, westerners tend to imagine they are. Actually we would have welcomed a little more mindlessness on their part. Whenever we told them, for instance, to put a screw somewhere, it initiated a long chain of actions that just never seemed to end. Instead of simply putting there the bloody screw, they had a lengthy debate among themselves in rapid, anxious Cantonese for about 20 minutes, then told us that we didn't even need a screw there. We would tell them that yes, we do indeed ... another 30 minutes of chatter ... they are sorry, but the drill they would need is currently used by someone else, we have to wait ... we wait ... wait some more ... the drill arrives, but it turns out that they are out of screws, so it can't be done until the next day, when they get more supplies. You also have to explain them everything at least five times, for them to actually do it. Oh, they understand it crystal clear the first time as well, but they want to be absolutely sure they got it right. Which would be a nice thing, only they screw it up all the same. You get the feeling that whenever you tell them to do something, they do something - it's not what you asked for, but it is something, and you should be satisfied with it. Things like that burn time and energy, and when you put it together with the kind of not so pleasant conditions that reign inside the plant - not unlike the core of a dying star filled with sticky iron dust and screaming sounds from hell, that makes your eardrums want retire to the back of your head and never come back - well, it makes the whole thing a bit of an agony. And of course there's also the big question whether they are this way because A, of their culture B, they are idiots C, they think we are idiots? My money is on C...

A very important thing to note for everyone who is about to work in China, is that your Chinese colleagues will take the side of the other Chinese, rather than the company's. In our case when the factory workers screw something up, our Chinese colleagues start to make excuses for them, instead of shouting their heads off. The best interest of the foreign company that they too work for, is second to the the one of their fellow Chinese. This is not to say that they aren't grand people - only that for them blood ties stronger than contracts. It's also worth remember, that here every deal seems to involve some people washing each other's backs - I'm quite certain that we ended up in the factory where we did, because of some shifty agreement between some obscure people who happened to know each other from way back. In China networking is everything!

What Chinese manufacturers are amazing at, however, is reproduction! Once they manage to do something right, they can recreate it anytime! As much as this amazes us, it's somewhat worrying as well. We are not quite sure what's there to stop them producing thousands of our machines for their own ends. Especially in China, where the concept of patent law is still viewed as a fancy of the silly west. It's exactly because of this that we have to use separate factories for different phases of the work, so not one of them will know the whole procedure. Clever, innit? Not all plants were, to put it nicely, quite up to the task either - at one we approached the most high-tech appliance they had, was a hammer which was well past its prime. What they lacked in cutting edge technology, however, they made up in optimism, as they promised to finish the assembly in no more than two days - a job that took us two weeks in a normal factory.

Even in the factories where they managed to evolve further than prehistoric technology, the idea of health and safety regulations were yet to reach maturity, or indeed exist. Helmets, earplugs, any kind of protective wear or such useless things were nowhere to be seen. We did find some welding shields, but they were as untouched as my high school math teacher. Who needs them anyway, when you have your eyelids to keep you from getting blind as a bat? The only protection they seemed to use were simple plastic glasses, surrounded by newspaper - against the sparks I guess. In two weeks I couldn't find out their policy on when to use this rather creepy ad-hoc mask, and when just stare right into the searing light. 

They did, of course, have 'No Smoking' signs all over the place, due to the large number of tanks and tubes filled with highly unstable, explosive gasses and liquids that upon catching fire would most likely cover half the city with a poisonous, flash eating angry cloud. Signs, however, seemed to only challenge the workers, as they were smoking even when carrying around the damn tanks, waving the burning end of their fags only inches away from the valve. Other minor hazards involved cases such as the truck that almost hit me while going backwards (the truck, not me); or the huge load of BBQ sets that tumbled crashing down from a fork lift a few metres away from me. I thought these things were scary... until the typhoon broke out. Now, a full-scale typhoon is a pretty horrifying experience in itself - but when you are in a barely water sealed plant, full of naked high-voltage cables, it's a whole other level. Where the windows should have been, the raging storm was blowing in vaporised rain right on the cables that were lazily hanging from the roof. The water was pouring down on the walls, onto the electric boxes and sockets, making me vaguely remember something from science class about how water and electricity doesn't combine nicely. I was expecting the factory to turn into a Tesla experiment in any minute, and I had one of the very few religious experiences of my life, when I started to pray to God... any God. The workers, however, were not bothered at all, and continued to idly smoke around the gas tanks.

Luckily, being there for two weeks made it possible for me to catch some beautiful little moments and details, that otherwise would have escaped me. Like that man and woman that had to work on the same machine every single day - and by each passing day, they grew fonder and fonder to each other, until on my last day I saw them going home together holding hands. Or the huge monster of a machinery that had an old, faded photo of a pretty young girl in a wedding gown, right where the worker who spent half his life sitting in front of it, could see it all the time...

If you had told me a few month ago, that I would spend weeks of my summer to work in a Chinese factory, I would have thought that you are a peculiar one, and avoided further interaction. But life has some mysterious twists, and early July found me shouting through the rumble of a thousand machines to some Chinese workers who didn't understand a word I was saying anyway, and probably wouldn't cared even if they did. Even though most of the time we felt like swimming against the stream, this experience did provide some valuable lesson about how challenging it is to overcome the culture gap when working on the other side of the globe, and how good it feels when you finally succeed...

The drilling machine of love

 Bonus: The hardest working member of the factory!

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