Chinese factory workers are often seen as the obstacle to higher quality, fewer working hours, and better safety measures. Let’s study each of these issues separately:
1. Chinese factory workers, not capable of good workmanship?
As I wrote before, managers like to point to individual operators as the cause of quality problems. And I admit it is quite tempting in certain cases.
For example, Chinese factory workers usually don’t stop their work flow, even when they notice defects that were created in the earlier processes. From the whole factory’s perspective, it is useless work that will have to be repaired (and it might even render re-work impossible).
In other cases, some workers do a poor job themselves, and don’t seem to care a bit.
What do their managers say, in these cases? “They don’t invest themselves in their jobs, because they might leave to another employer soon”, “they have no concept of what is acceptable on Western markets”, “they come from farms and have very little education”, etc.
This is just too easy. Most factories offer no training to their employees. They don’t even show them a sample of the desired finished products. They create no procedure that says “if you see faulty products, go see your supervisor”.
It is actually even worse. Chinese factory workers are paid according to the number of pieces they produce, so their individual output quantity is the sole objective… No matter how they are producing it.
To sum up, the fault rests entirely with management. Not operators.
2. Chinese factory workers, pushing to work longer hours?
I heard this one several times, and it often means “nothing can be done, the situation is desperate”. Here is an excerpt from The China Price, by Alexandra Harney:
“The basic trouble is the workers want to earn more in a short time”, Chan told me. “If any factory has overtime in some area, all the workers will go to it. Workers like overtime. They tell me, ‘I haven’t come here for a holiday. I’m here to earn money.’ If you don’t want to have overtime, they will leave.”
“All Chinese people want more money because it’s the culture… the workers like to work and earn money because they don’t want to stay here very long. After a few years, they’d like to go home and have a very small business”.
So, most factories do not respect the maximum number of working hours because they need to find workers? Whose fault is it?
Local governments, in most areas, are not strict regarding this issue. They only make a few inspections, and they probably don’t really care about it.
Large importers (particularly brand name companies) make this situation worse with social audits. They don’t care about the real situation: all they want is nice audit reports. They have actually pushed factories to hide non-compliance, and to cheat with double accounting systems. In the end, it makes it harder to solve this problem.
And another issue was created by large importers. They constantly switch suppliers for a slightly better price. How can a factory invest in a better organization (for higher productivity and higher quality) if it is forced to keep rock-bottom prices just to keep its customers?
So I would say the fault rests mostly with foreign buyers.
3. Chinese factory workers, refusing to wear protective gear?
What is seen as acceptable regarding worker’s safety in China (and other developing countries) is a bit scary. The employees might not be aware of–or care about–risks, but their employers are responsible for health and safety conditions.
The author visited a very rudimentary Chinese factory (see photo above), and questioned the manager about safety issues:
The factory manager told me they tried a while ago to get the workers to wear goggles, gloves, boots, face masks and other saftey equipment. But the workers refused.
The factory manager said they tried to introduce a scheme to penalize workers 5RMB (US$0.75c) each time they were found not wearing safety gear.
But after a while, with too many fines being docked off their salaries, workers began to leave the factory in droves to work at other factories where stringent health and safety requirements were not in place. So the factory gave up the scheme.
Oddly enough, it’s not only factory bosses who don’t care much for worker safety. It appears that workers themselves don’t care much for their own protection either. Unlike in the West, where things have almost gone to the other extreme, there is no health and safety culture among folk in China. The only way health and safety standards can be improved in Chinese factories is for tougher laws to be introduced and for stricter enforcement of existing health and safety legislation. Random inspection of factories would be a good start. Sometimes it can be a government problem with a lack of manpower, but at other times corruption can be an issue.
Is it really due to the Chinese factory workers’ lack of awareness about the risks they are running? I don’t think so.
One element the author overlooked is that protective gear (be it goggles, gloves, etc.) slow down the operator. And the precision of the work is also reduced.
It means the same operators would have to keep at it for longer, and probably for a higher proportion of defects, just to produce the same output… And to get the same pay.
Is it fair to impose protective equipment, if a worker cannot earn as much when wearing it? What the manager should have proposed is (1) to wear protections, and (2) to get a higher pay per piece. Anything else it unreasonable.
Once again, Chinese factory workers are not at fault. I’ll give some of the blame on the factory managers who do not want to increase salaries.