Death of " Shoe Town" beginning of end for China sweatshops

Other News Materials 6 May 2008 09:21 (UTC +04:00)

The lone security guard could only stand aside helplessly, cowering as an angry crowd of 400 people surged forward, smashing the steel barricades outside the factory in southern China and forcing their way inside, dpa reported.

Some yelling, some crying tears of frustration, they fanned out across the deserted concrete complex, aiming kicks at their boss's abandoned car. Then they ran through the workshops, offices and dormitories, seeking retribution.

Thirty minutes later, their fury spent, they drifted back out across the trampled barricades, leaving for the last time the place where many of them had spent years of their working lives, carrying the only thing they could plunder: armfuls of shoes.

"What could I do? I was just one old man against a mob," recalls 66-year-old security guard Can Don Yi. "Of course, I didn't try to stop them. In any case, they had a right to be angry. I felt sorry for them."

Two days before, the workers had been busy on the production lines of the Dingfu factory in the town of Houjie, making shoes for shops such as Zara, Nine West and Sam & Libby. Then local government officials marched in and announced that the company was bankrupt.

Penniless and cut off from their homes and families, the migrant workers - owed an average of four months of wages - found themselves shut out as the factory doors were sealed and court notices put up saying the Taiwan owners were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

At first, they waited patiently at the factory gates. Then, when it was clear there would be no jobs to return to and no one to help them get back the money they were owed, they took matters into their own hands.

Minutes after storming the factory gates, it became clear that anything of value at Dingfu was gone. The boss had fled China on the day the factory was forced to close, leaving his 4x4 vehicle on the factory forecourt. On the front seat were a staff roster, a pile of lunch receipts and a business magazine.

The factory closure in November was a scenario that has been repeated across southern China, where more than 1,000 shoe factories - about a fifth of the total - have closed down in the past year. The majority were in Houjie, a concrete sprawl on the outskirts of Dongguan known as China's " Shoe Town."

Jenny Chan - chief coordinator of the Hong Kong-based pressure group Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, which investigates factory conditions in southern China - says: "In the past, workers would just swallow all the insults and humiliation. Now they resist.

"They collect money and they gather signatures. They use the shop floors and the dormitories to gather the collective forces to put themselves in better negotiating positions with factory owners and managers."

Technology has made this possible. "They use their mobile phones to receive news and send messages," Chan says. "Internet cafes are very important, too. They exchange news about which cities or which factories are recruiting and what they are offering, and that news spreads very quickly."

As a result, she says, factories are seeing huge turnover rates. In Houjie, some factories have tripled workers' salaries, but there are still more than 100,000 vacancies.

Outside one factory, a woman sits alone at a small wooden table. Behind her is a large red banner announcing: "Workers wanted. Good rates of pay. Generous overtime allowances." It's already 2 pm and she admits: "It's been a slow day. No one has stopped by so far."

The factory makes baby shoes for export to Europe. General manager Todd Cseng admits that the shortage of labour has become so acute and the cost of operating so high because of the strengthening Chinese currency and EU tariffs on Chinese shoe imports that his company is facing closure.

"They used to queue up outside for jobs, but now we have to advertise in the street for employees," Cseng says. "We have 500 workers here, and we have vacancies for 700 more, but I don't see any way we are going to be able to fill them. The migrant workers simply aren't here anymore."

"Our workforce is getting older, and production costs are getting higher," Cseng says with a shrug. "We used to pay 500 yuan a month (71.50 dollars). Now, even if we offer three times that with guaranteed overtime, we can't get the people we need to fill the vacancies."

He says the solution would be for his company to leave the increasingly expensive factory belt in southern China, where the first phase of China's extraordinary industrial revolution was forged.

"We will have to move either inland or out of China altogether," he says. "It's not political, it's economic. It's just too expensive in southern China today."

Houjie and other towns like it across southern China face becoming wastelands of concrete where no one lives. China's leaders have acknowledged the looming crisis and are belatedly trying to encourage high-tech industry.

The prospect of an end to China's sweatshop culture is welcomed by labour groups, which look forward to the emergence of a politically influential labour movement similar to the ones that shaped so much of postwar politics in the United States and Europe.

"The working class in China will get stronger and bring about some major changes," Chan says hopefully. "These forces from the bottom up are very important in making a better China, a China that is more democratic and participatory."

Meanwhile, time stands stubbornly still at the Dingfu factory in Houjie. Behind the sealed iron doors, shoe boxes lie in untidy piles, dusty racks of unwanted clothes hang outside deserted dormitories and half-finished shoes sit on the production line waiting for an army of workers who will never return.

A few stragglers linger behind, stopping by from time to time to watch for the return of their runaway boss, whose 4x4 stands, coated in dust on deflated tyres, in the factory forecourt.

"Is he here? Have you seen him?" a 40-year-old man asks in hope rather than expectation as he watches reporters emerge from the factory. "I just want the money he owes me, and I'll keep coming back until I get it. I'm not frightened of him anymore. None of us is."