May 26, 2007

Cheap, Cheerful and Chinese

The global factory is gearing up for a change of shift. The streets of Dongguan are still relatively deserted -- filled only by the rising heat and swirling dust. Trucks rattle along the multilane thoroughfares, thousands every hour. They keep the supplies coming for the plants that line the streets, mile after mile, like gigantic military compounds.

Then, suddenly, Dongguan explodes into life. It's the same bustling picture every day, morning and night: Workers, most of them women, stream in from every direction, with uniforms in every color of the rainbow. Laminated company IDs dangle from their necks -- IBM, Siemens, Nokia, Duracell, Sanyo -- to name but a few of the major international brands that have set up shop here. 

Most of the workers look like schoolgirls. Holding hands, some are returning to their hostels exhausted, while others dutifully head off to the night shift. Outside the factories, the flags of the world have been hoisted to announce where the employers come from and what their employees are producing: cables for Germany, batteries for the United States, computer components for Japan, cellphones for Finland, clothing for France, toys for Hong Kong, shoes for Taiwan. There is almost nothing that this city of 1.5 million and its roughly 5 million migrant workers cannot supply.

Dongguan is only a small part of the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, which is booming like scarcely any other region on the planet. Export plants are mushrooming from the red earth all along the highway that leads to the nearby industrial center of Shenzhen. Here, as everywhere in China, international corporations have turned the battle cry of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' 1848 Communist Manifesto, "Workers of the World, Unite!" into its opposite: "Producers of the World, Unite!"

No comments: