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February  2006

One of the things I knew about China before I came here was that it had lots of factories.  “Outsourcing” was often the scapegoat for unemployment in America, and China, with its vast supply of cheap labor, was inevitably mentioned as one of the culprits.  I had imagined China to be filled with covert sweatshops, and I had laughed when my lawyer friend suggested that I try to visit some of these factories while I was in China.  I thought it would be impossible–surely they would never let a foreigner into any of their factories.


But on Thursday, not only were Zac and I in a genuine Chinese factory, but we had been given free reign to take photos and interview the employees.  We managed this miraculous feat through the help of one of our Chinese friends (whom I’ll call Jenny), who recently got a job working at the import/export office for the factory.  I offered to help her advertise their products and services in English on the internet, but I said I needed to learn more about the process.  She also agreed that the website would be much better with photos.  She talked to her boss about the idea, and he was impressed with her efforts to increase business, so he readily agreed to let Zac and I come to the factory.

After a two hour bus ride, we arrived in the small town of Zhuanghe and took a taxi to the factory where we met the boss.  He took us all out to lunch, during which he asked us to help promote his fish in the U.S. and was a bit disappointed when we politely declined, citing lack of proper know-how.  He also tried to convince me that business was much better than teaching. 



We learned that this factory processes Alaskan Pollack, which they import frozen from the USA or Russia.  When the factory receives the fish, they have already been beheaded, gutted and frozen. This factory turns the Pollack into boneless, skinless, frozen fillets, and then exports them all over the world (so if you happen to need some wholesale frozen Pollack we know a good place to get it).  Most of the workers at the factory were migrant workers from other provinces, and they lived in a dormitory behind the factory.  They don’t have kitchens, so they eat everyday in the factory cafeteria.


After our delicious lunch, we returned to the factory and got suited up in white rubber boots, white lab coats with hoods, blue latex gloves and disposable face masks.  We had to walk through a disinfecting area before entering the factory floor.  I was expecting something reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, but the factory wasn’t that scary. 


We started at the beginning: the big vats of water where the fish are thawed.  After they are thawed, men scoop them out with fishnets and put them in smaller baskets.  The workers come and get these baskets of fish and take them to their workstation. Everyone who fillets the fish stands up at long tables.  As they cut, fillets go into one basket, bones and skin into another.  These workers get paid in piece wages, about 0.6 RMB ($0.07) per kilogram of fillets.  This comes out to a little more than 1,000 RMB per month.  To put this in perspective, they are making about $125, slightly more than the monthly salary of a receptionist at our school, but 1/7 of what I earn per month.  And they’re working 9 hours a day 7 days a week.  Cutting fish.

After the fish are turned into fillets, they are rinsed and taken to the next workstation where they are thoroughly checked for bones and worms.  Apparently all the fish contain a few white worm eggs that are the size of a grain of rice.  These workers spend 9 hours a day 7 days a week searching for little white eggs and worms in white fish. 



Next, some workers put the fish into basins, where they soak in preservatives for about 10 minutes.  This is one of the few automated tasks, as a machine vibrates the basins, swishing the water around.  After the fish are well preserved, a different set of workers load the fillets on to trays to be re-frozen.



Our tour followed the fillets into the fish factory freezers.  Here, workers take the frozen fish and dip them in cold water to add a nice glaze.  Then they package them into boxes to be shipped off.  The boxes we saw were headed to Chicago.  These workers work spend 9 hours a day, 7 days a week in these frozen catacombs, for $125 a month.



The irony of it all, of course, was that after we had left the factory and returned to the factory offices, we noticed a large line of people in the hallway.  Jenny said they were all there to apply for jobs in the fish factory.


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