How I got there:
Some years ago I got a phone call from Norwatch, an NGO investigating Norwegian investments abroad as well as their ethical responsibility towards the workers. Their mission was to go to China to research the factories where the Norwegian Army’s uniforms are made and they needed a photographer. Two weeks later I was on the infamous bullet train riding 400 km an hour into Shanghai alongside Erik who leads these investigations.
Our job was going to be to check up on the factories where they produced Norwegian Army uniforms and investigate the working conditions. Erik, the lead journalist on the investigation, had been working on this project for a while from Norway but had come to many dead ends. That’s why he decided he had to go to China and check it out himself; We were on a mission and I liked it.
Erik is a few years older than me. He’s tall and has a characteristic white man’s afro (whitefro). He has a chilled out approach to traveling and fortunately, good taste in hotels. First thing I had to do after arriving to Shanghai was go to the mall to get some new shoes and socks. I had totally overdone the “Travel Light as Hell” mantra and only brought my winter shoes. Pretty classic actually. I had no idea it would be boiling hot, but to buy stuff before a trip to Shanghai, where all my clothes probably come from anyways, seemed totally wrong. The first (and only) mall I went to was like a mutation of a WalMart and an Ikea and I honestly believe you can buy a copy of anything there. For 160 dollars I could buy a brand new scooter with a real engine! It was a Fespa or something. I really, really wanted it, but after quick consideration I figured I would have been a total victim of market capitalism if I walked out of that mall with a scooter when all I wanted was a new pair of shoes. So I got the shoes and said good-bye to the scooter.
As any city of monstrous size, Shanghai was just too big for me to grasp all at once. It seemed like a huge mission to get anywhere and walking never seemed to get me anywhere either.
After a few days we moved inland towards the factory areas. Although it wasn’t my first time visiting China I hadn’t been in the super densely populated areas before. There are people everywhere, but still everything seemed very organized.
Together with a representative from the Norwegian Army we went to visit a couple of factories making uniforms. The army representative came to ensure that the factory owners showed us everything we needed to see.
The first factory we visited was obviously a quickly put together mini-factory and gave the impression of an exhibit hall more than a factory. The owner had some vague explanations about the factory being moved to a different location and so on. The next factory we visited was huge, and the workers lived on the compound 360 days a year. The workers lived, breathed, ate, and did just about everything at and for the factory.
What to look for?
To be honest, at this point we just had a quick look around as we didn’t really know what we were looking for. Not to mention industrial espionage wasn’t one of my strongest skills at the time. But the factory wasn’t as bad as the ones I’ve seen in Norwegian newspapers, plus I couldn’t see any children working there. The dorms were not exactly a place I would have paid top dollar to sleep in: 4 bunk beds in each room, water leaking through the hallway floors, and probably the most un-cozy toilets in the universe.
Once inside the factory the owner was proud to show us the air conditioning and water fountains located nearby the workers in case they get thirsty. – Wow they have AC, I thought, they just might survive.
While Erik interviewed some of the workers I walked around and photographed between the majestic lines of sewing machines. The workers handled the sewing machines like they were just extensions of their bodies. During the interviews the workers only had minor complaints about the workplace, although I have to admit that I was a bit suspicious considering the owner himself chose the interview subjects.
When the bell rang for lunch we got a glimpse of the good old communist way of organization; the workers looked like ants when they walked from the production room to the cafeteria.
So far so good?
So far it seemed like the Norwegian Army had their uniforms produced under almost ethically acceptable conditions, but we were more anxious to visit the next factory on our agenda. For some reason it proved to be difficult to find the exact address of this factory.
We figured that it meant a) Someone doesn’t want us to see this place, or b) they don’t know where this factory is located. Either way we had to find it. It was our mission!
Change of Location.
After we’d made some prime investigation we figured that the factory was located in Macau, next to Hong Kong, in the southern part of China. Macau had a very different feel than the other Chinese cities we visited, with its fancy glass skyscrapers and crowded beaches. It felt like Las Vegas on Miami Beach with only Chinese people allowed.
Not that we got to enjoy the beach. We had no time to waste — we had a case to solve!
It felt like I was in the private detective business working with secretive Chinese factory owners on a fancy beach. A great scenario for a movie with a bad ending.
Reinforcements: Our Private Detective
This feeling got even stronger when I met our own local “Private Eye”, or The Auditor, as he called himself. We wanted to be pros, so we hired a professional auditor whose job is to make sure that factories meet a certain working standard, and definitely knows what to look for when inspecting factories. Joe worked for an NGO that audits factories on behalf of people who want to have the working conditions in a factory inspected.
But even with a local factory expert on our team it proved to be harder than we expected to find this mysterious factory. The address we were given brought us nowhere, so we had to search around like blind mice. Walking around the dusty streets with heavy camera equipment hanging from my neck, looking for a factory that no one knew where it was under a boiling sun and 40+ Celsius is perhaps my least favorite memory from China.
Anyways, needles to say, or there would have been no point to my story, we found it! It was on the 4th floor of a warehouse building. Over the entrance there was a huge “No Photographs” sign. We got a quick look into the factory before we were told off and asked to come back the next day. Joe, our private investigator, had already smoothly morphed into his character as a “translator” while he was collecting precious information from the corner of his eye. He noticed that the factory had two different time stamping systems, which should sound an alarm signal in your head and reveal that something sketchy is going on.
Meeting the Boss
Later that day the boss of the factory invited us to dinner with him and the representative from the Norwegian Army, Marit, at a traditional Chinese restaurant. The Boss was as sleazy as only a Chinese Factory Boss could be! He had a fat greasy mustache, wore suspenders, and of course was puffing away at chewed up cigar. His cocky smile and repulsive way of treating the waiters didn’t improve my outlook on the factory owner.
The table overflowed with all sorts of different Chinese dishes. Some of the bird feet we ate looked exactly like miniature hands and I remember I had to sneak a peak at the Chinese Factory Boss to see how he ate them. Basically you just put a finger in your mouth, bite a bit, and pull the rest of the hand back, so that the hollow finger ends up in your mouth. Then you leave the bone on the hand and eat the finger.
During the dinner Marit made it clear to the Boss that it was important to the Norwegian Army, his clients, to allow us access to his factory. Having the Army negotiate the access for us turned out to be a sweet deal for all of us, especially Erik. The Boss finally agreed to let us have a look at the factory and let us interview him and some workers the next day.
The factory looked clean and well kept and the sewing machines looked pretty new. I couldn’t see any huge blaring problems to photograph. There were no children working, the AC was on and to me everything looked as normal as a Chinese factory can look. Although we were not allowed to take pictures inside the factory we could do so in the office, where we where going to interview the Boss.
While I was photographing some uniforms displayed on a rack, I noticed Joe was snooping around the office. The Boss had no idea that Our Man was an expert in working laws and conditions, as it was impossible to see from the naked eye that he was not “just” a translator. He looked through notebooks and all sorts of documents, all the while putting on an act pretending to be stupid. Whatever his strategy was, it worked. He signaled for me to come over and take pictures of different documents and phone numbers. I did this as discretely as I could, and I think that moment was the closest I have ever been to an industrial espionage agent.
Its a Front Factory!
Seeing how Joe the pro was working really impressed me. Soon, he’d tell me of all the suspicious things he discovered. For example: The number of uniforms being made at this factory is larger than what this factory had the capacity to produce. It doesn’t even have the sewing machines needed to make some of the equipment. I was learning fast. Joe explained that this was probably a front factory and that the rest of the uniforms were probably being made someplace else. As if it weren’t enough that the Norwegian Uniforms were being made in China, but come to find out they were being made in Chinese Shadow factories! And I was there to unfold the truth to the Norwegian people! I just HAD to find this dark pit of a Chinese shadow factory.
I then learned that apparently it’s normal for the nice looking factories to get orders way bigger than they can handle, and therefore they outsource the work to other factories where the standards will not be checked. It’s like a proxy factory. Joe even told me about companies who hire consultants to travel around and teach the workers what to say to auditors when asked about the working conditions. Now that’s entrepreneurship, although a bit destructive.
Where are the Shadow Factories?
The pictures I had taken in secret turned out to be orders to other factories and their phone numbers. Later we tried to call them. Joe talked to a man who was very surprised that we had his phone number and demanded to know where we had gotten his information.
Later when we interviewed the Boss he admitted to using shadow factories, but claimed he had told the Norwegian sub-contractor every time. Apparently the information never reached the Norwegian Army. Or at least that’s what they said.
As a public institution The Norwegian Army is obligated to make expenses bigger than 100 000 dollars available information to the public. The Norwegian government declared that public institutions must conduct business in a transparent and ethical way. We found out they didn’t even know where the uniforms were being made. The story Erik published shook things up a bit.
The Norwegian Army Introduses Ethical Guidelines.
After the publications of Erik’s article the Norwegian Army admitted that they had no knowledge on ethical issues in the Chinese factories where they had their products made. The Army later informed announced they were going to introduce ethical guidelines for their subcontractors starting the same year.
– Basic Human and workers rights shall from now on be taken care of when the Army buys things, in all the different stages, the Norwegian Army wrote in an Email.
We didn’t save the potential victims of slave labor in Chinese horror factories, but we made a small step in making sure that our own tax money will not be supporting it. For that reason I’d say: Mission Completed
Everything comes from a factory in China and during my travel I felt I got to check out a place that actually is very important for our daily lives even though no one goes there.
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