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Inside the Dormitory of a Chinese Factory: The Case for Social Responsibility

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I just got back from spending a couple of weeks in Pro QC’s China offices. I’ll admit I was really excited about this trip, not only for the on-site audit experience I had planned, but because I truly love Asia and it’s most certainly a highlight of my job to be able to travel there.

Over the years, I’ve visited many manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and abroad. I’m here to say that a majority simply don’t replicate what we see on How It’s Made.  I’ve been to factories with dirt floors, poor ventilation, broken down machinery, poorly stored hazardous chemicals, etc. I’ve seen some stuff. But, I can’t say I had ever seen a factory dormitory until this most recent trip…

I talk a lot about social responsibility. Someone once referred to it as my bailiwick, which is fair.  But, I’m here to say I’ve never been more convinced of the value of having organizations invest in this than I am now.

One of the audits I attended during my trip was a SA8000 audit.  This would be my first time getting to experience the human aspect of manufacturing, whereas my previous hands-on experience has always focused on the product.

This particular factory wasn’t too shabby, all things considered. The factory personnel were all very accommodating and I remember thinking it would go quite smoothly.  Around 11am, I noticed everyone heading out to an apartment looking building behind the factory.  I knew it was the dormitory, and I asked if we could stop by there so I could see it while everyone is out and about.  They insisted that it wasn’t owned by the factory and instead operated by a 3rd party. This is part of the scope of the audit, so I asked again later and they agreed.

We get in there after the lunch rush, so no one was in there.  The first thing I noticed were the locks on the outside of the doors.  You know, you don’t want to imagine why someone would need the door locked from the outside but I still can’t think of any reason or purpose that’s legit.  I insisted they needed to be removed and ended up locking our auditor in as an example of why I had a problem with it.  Of course, they agreed to remove them and we will be following up on that and a few other issues that were noted.  But, for real…

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A typical dormitory at a factory is the size of a really large walk-in closet. This particular room had four bunk beds, so eight people per room.  There was a shared bathroom at the rear where the in-ground toilet and shower hose were sharing the same small space.  Running hot or cold water was available from a spigot outside, just down the hall. This is all fine and in compliance with the law.  But, this is where people are living that are making a lot of the stuff you buy. It’s not cheap to buy/rent housing in China, and commutes are time prohibitive and costly as well. The argument for dormitories is logical… until you see one and realize it’s not quite what you remember from college.

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The lady I saw sitting there crouched over a machine stamping metal parts for 8-11 hours (2 hour break included) didn’t look unhappy at all. You know, here I am asking if they have cross-training available so she could avoid occupational injuries as the result of all that repetitive movement.  After a few minutes, it was obvious they couldn’t even conceive of what I was talking about.  Her job is to sit there stamping parts.

So, I guess the point is that I give props to companies that hire companies like Pro QC to go into these factories and help them improve the conditions. It’s a small price to pay that in fact pays for itself. A large part of why I took the job at Pro QC many years ago was the plan to start marketing the SA audits. I continue to support and pursue awareness and action.

I get a surprising number of people asking me why I’d be so excited to visit China…

Sure, there’s smog.  You want to think it’s just a cloudy day or something, but the reality is that there’s pollution.  The Chinese government has invested an absurd amount to clean-up and resolve the problem.  It requires changing a culture too though, and that’s going to take time.  It’s also on us as organizations to support sustainability.

Sure, the food is much different than you’re probably used to.  But, one of the highlights of my visits is eating with our team.  This time, I enjoyed going out with everyone in Ningbo and then celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival with our team in Shenzhen. It’s fun to try new things and get in on the excitement people have about their local fare.  One of the factories was really proud of this year’s yang mei. I could have eaten that whole bowl!

Sure, they are going to speak a different language than you.  But, I’ll tell you it’s not an issue. A memory that will stick with me is one of me standing outside of Starbucks in Shanghai waiting for them to open. A lady that didn’t speak any English at all waved me over and insisted I follow her. After quite the walk, we ended up with this street vendor making dumpling soup and I enjoyed the opportunity to have breakfast with her family. That’s the people there. You just never feel unsafe.

Sure, almost a day of travel to get there is rough.  Yeah… that one is legit.  It’s hard to wrap your head around what 14 hours on a plane feels like. During this trip, I took several planes, the MTR, a ferry, many adventurous taxi rides, and a “fast” train. But, as someone pretty insightful once said, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.

 

 

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