www.riut.co.uk Look inside your bag. If you manage to find it, I guess that you'd find a little label saying your bag is made in China. Whilst we are busy living a high cost high convenience life, China is busy making many of the things we buy - and it's not all low quality. Many of the world's greatest brands make their products here. (Literally, in this factory.)
The factory owner found me a little quirky for wanting to spend time understanding the production line workers' jobs, pay and working lives. After a few raised eyebrows I convinced my contact, Daisy, to give me a tour.
In this blog I'm not trying to sell the virtues of manufacturing in China. I'm just here, in Huian south China, getting my first production run of RiutBags made. That means I can give you a direct view into the cutting, stitching, construction and packing rooms. Of course, I do want you to feel comfortable with the RiutBag as a whole - but I will show you everything I saw so that you can make up your minds.
Our fear or even expectation, as the consumer, is that textiles stitchers are too young, paid next to nothing and treated poorly. Whilst the pay is quite low, I think you'll be surprised at the acceptability of the working conditions on the production line at this factory.
For those who were in doubt, RiutBags - and all bags - are designed, cut and sewn by people at sewing machines. All those identical bags you see in shops and on the shoulders of your fellow commuters, yup - they've all been made by human beings at sewing machines. And some bits completely by hand.
We're at Hong Sheng Bags in Huian, Fujian in China along the coast between Shanghai and Hong Kong. It's not the most elegant of places: you've got a rough mix of growing city, dregs of agricultural life, stacked city buildings - street level shops, hotels with hourly rates, above them towering apartments - and the most unpredictable driving conventions I've ever seen.
Who's who overview
The management at the factory - sales, ten material purchasers and finance managers - are local to Huian. The people who create samples to show the client, material cutters, production line stitchers and packagers total about 130. They tend to come from other provinces to work in a highly industrial area where there are plenty of jobs. So, the factory at any time swing from about 80 to 130 people making everything happen. This has reduced from its height pre-financial crash of over 1000. But still, Daisy and I worked it out: the factory makes about 500,000 bags a year.
Production line workers: what it's like
I walked up through the factory and into a large room. I walked past rows of unmanned sewing machines and up to the other end of the room. There, about 20 people were working. Some listening to the radio, others to music on their ear phones. Some people chatting to each other. And everyone look a little bored yet concentrated.
It's funny. When you're expecting to see dark and pretty horrible conditions with sewing machines being used by children under threat of some strict and imposing manager, it's quite a shock when it's quite a normal, calm and relaxed place. I couldn't actually tell who was managing it all. Everyone had a separate job to do and they just took their pile of zips to apply, straps to stitch, threads to remove and got on with it.
Production line workers: age and pay
The youngest person there was a 23 year old guy. In the cutting department a few well dressed 20-somethings were using the ancient looking cutting machines to cut 100s of identical pieces of bright pink material at once. The bags being made didn't require hand/scissor cutting. But that is often a method used in this factory too.
Daisy told me that the guys in their 20s tend to come back to the factory during college and university holidays. I remember this happening in my old office job days. When the students are away, the roles tend to be filled by slightly older men and women. In the packing department - where the cardboard boxes are labelled and filled with bags - this was where the oldest people could be found. I'd guess about 45 or 50.
You get paid by the day in this, and most, bag factories in China. At the lowest end of the pay scale and skill level are those who receive 100RMB per day (£10, €14 or $15) and for higher skilled roles the day rate goes up to 200RMB (£20, €29 or $31). So, working a normal month with weekends the pay range is between £310 and £626. People can rent in accordance with that old rule that your rent is about a third of your monthly income. There's plenty of lower end housing around here which supports the local economy.
Those who wish to, can work overtime. There are night shifts available during the peak bag seasons - essentially all year between November and July. Maybe not your idea of fun, but there option is there to get more money if required.
You can tell that this isn't the most exciting job for most people on the production line. But what struck me is that everyone looked pretty relaxed and a little bemused that some European person wanted to see what they were doing. They headed off to change the radio when it was getting annoying, refilled bottles of water whenever they wanted and generally seemed free to do what they wanted. It was a bit like an office environment just replacing computers with sewing machines.
The cutters and production line workers arrive on scooters every day. They head off to lunch at the nearby noodle and rice houses, or eat together at the factory. That's where Daisy and I had lunch too.
You can see that there are a lot of different types of people working there: the old man who perhaps used to have a better job but has fallen on hard times; the old woman who has been there so long she is the ultimate quality control; the bored students who get on and do it because they're listening to music and they know how to do it. It's not amazing but it's certainly not like the horror stories I've been warned about.
It's up to you as the RiutBag user to let me know whether you think this is unacceptable, interesting, what you were expecting or OK. I'm sure none of you is jumping for joy at the amount the production line workers are paid, nor that the sewing machines look like they've had better days. But at least you're building up a whole picture of the RiutBag on its way, what it takes to build it and the picture behind a lot of products you own.
p.s. I'm about to head to the airport from Jinjiang > Guangzhou > Doha > London. I'll report on the story of the multiplying RiutBags. There was one there are now four! There's just samples but I'll be able to show you all the changes when I'm back on Friday. Thanks for reading!