Friday, 20 July 2007

Working in China is very different

Working in China is very different from working in the West, an obvious statement you may think - but just how different can it be? I mean apart from the language, we all have similar education levels and the same basic requirements to engage in buying, selling and providing a service. Just how different can it be – well the differences are what you either love or hate about China, its what creates immense frustration in some visitors, and in other’s creates an absolute passion for the place.
I fall between the two, there are times of complete an utter disbelieve as to how decisions are decided, plans are established, or purchases are made. These sit alongside moments of immense satisfaction and enlightenment when issues that would have taken months or even years to gain approval for in the west are decided with a single word from the right person. This is the rollercoaster of China.

Whatever your job or profession, working in China means that you spend a lot of your time travelling, be it by air, train or road – you have to get used to the fact that this is not a country – but a continent in its own right, and you could have literally thousands of miles between your next supplier or customer. One of the key tasks for the new MG owners Nanjing Automotive was to identify, select, develop and approve hundreds of new suppliers, for thousands of parts. As Quality Director I would be involved in the selection, development and most importantly approval of the parts, this would mean a lot of travelling!

During my time travelling around the country, I have visited city’s as big as most country’s in Europe, with dazzling skylines that put the like’s of New York, London or Sydney to shame, all filled with the luxury chain stores more akin to the high streets of Knightsbridge, the boulevards of Paris or the piazza’s of Rome.

This is where the majority of our suppliers are housed in purpose built factories; part owned by major international conglomerates, replicates of similar facilities in the UK, France, Germany & the US. With the latest equipment, production processes and quality controls.

However, on occasion you do get to see the other side of the Chinese supply base. In the villages and towns that seem to have been left behind by the mega-citys of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. Left behind both financially, socially and culturally.
These villages haven’t evolved much since the Cultural Revolution some 30 years ago. Life for the people who live there, hasn't changed at all – they still struggle with providing the basics for their families, food, clean water, an education etc.
People who try to find new work on a daily basis, earning little more than $1 a day, working in Victorian conditions, for Edwardian hours.

Theirs is a very simple life; living in self built houses, most without running water, sanitation, and electricity. Every part of their life echoes the existence of those caught in the industrial revolution in the UK at the turn of the century. Similarities don't end there, Chinese villages also have their fair share of “Mill Owners”, and it never surprises me that with every backwater village and every mud-laden track that leads in and out. If you wait longer enough a gleaming Black 7 series BMW or Audi A6 will trundle on down, carrying the owner of the local factory. The poor are getting richer, but not nearly as fast as the speed that rich are accumulating wealth, and the trappings along with it.

My visit is always met with curiosity rather than animosity. I often wonder if people in other countries would be as accommodating or as accepting of this strange visitor, my experiences of receiving foreigners in the west has often filled me with embarrassment at our lack of hospitality, our ignorance of alien customs, and our complete inability to accept that not everybody in the world speaks English. My presence always tends to distract from the actual purpose of the meeting or visit at first, but once the novelty has worn off the business of lunch isn’t far away! The first thing anyone has to understand is that lunch is the most important aspect of the business deal. Like the presence of the executive saloon, it doesn't matter how remote a factory is – there will always be a fairly decent Chinese restaurant nearby. Even if they have to wake the chef, stoke up the boiler to provide some heat and light, and rummage around the local store for some speciality dish – the meal will absorb an average villagers life savings within the 2 hours it takes to get through 20 or so courses of various animal parts, boiled, stewed and sometimes prepared raw for the visiting party. All of this will be washed down with plenty of Bei Ju (White Spirit) to warm the cold that pierces every exposed inch of flesh, and to hopefully help with the proceeding discussions around cost, delivery and quality.

The actual discussions are normally brief, most of the negotiations have happened behind the scenes and my presence is normally more ceremonial rather than functional. Embarrassment would be immense on both sides of the room if demands from our visiting party could not be guaranteed, or if assurances made that changes and improvements identified, wouldn’t instantly be put in place. This is something that you can certainly fall foul of when undertaking your first visits, our western mentality leaves us with certain expectations regarding workers safety, or evidence of policy’s and procedures for manufacturing, or purchasing. It’s hard to remember that these are factories still dragging themselves into the 20th century, let alone moving out of the 21st century.

Employee safety is an issue that always concerns us foreigners – the thought of Social welfare, adverse publicity, and large compensation bills are always at the front of our minds. Not so in China, when asking factory managers about presses operating without guards or safety equipment, a look of bemusement normally follows. The average compensation for lose of life is around $4000, the increase in productivity is worth the risk to most General Managers in China. This is one point that I have laboured over with many a senior representative of our suppliers – China welcomes foreign help in modernising the country in terms of technology, and thankfully they are quick to listen and react when improvements in safety are demanded as aggressively as demands for improved quality or reduced costs.

Working conditions are next to hit the visitor; most factories are dimly lit, with no heating in the harsh winters and no air-conditioning in the stifling summers. Concrete floors and walls, leaking roofs, and gapping gaps between the rusting steel framed windows. The conditions are grim to say the least, and the workers hustle together at break times to share cheap cigarettes and slurp hot jars of green tea.
An average working day starts at 7 in the morning and finishes when the light becomes too poor to continue.
These aren’t the conditions of some sweathouse churning out poor quality parts to meet the demands of the poor in Asia, as you walk around the facility’s you will find components being made for some of the most famous western brands. The tool shops are strewn with jigs, fixtures and parts heading for Turin, Birmingham, Frankfurt, and even Detroit to name but a few, mixed with these are the relics of what is left of MG-Rover’s legacy Complete with the tool stamps of names from a bygone era. Nanjing not only acquired to assets for building the vehicles, but they also acquired the tooling for at least 50% of the parts. The majority of equipment was shipped to China, and has found itself relocated in these sometimes-isolated factories, far away from the busy suburbs of the cities.
It’s very strange to see tools made by some the historic suppliers to the British automotive history now nestling down with local Chinese lumps of steel – again a country full or irony.


Anonymous said...

A good insight into what "low cost manufacture" means as so many Western industries now turn to this as a solution. Just be seen to be driving up those safety issues or it may come back and bite when export efforts get underway.


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