Fashion victims

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2008, 12:00am

Coated in eerie white dust, the workers look like restless ghosts as they shuffle between rows of lifeless torsos, shelves of disembodied heads with staring eyes and untidy piles of arms and legs. When they speak, their talk is of the supernatural too.

'At night, they come to life,' whispers a woman worker with a nervous giggle as she sands down the shiny bald head of a male mannequin that will soon gaze out of a store window in a shopping mall. 'Some of my colleagues swear they've seen their heads move and their eyes follow them across the room.'

All of the workers in the factory have heard the sinister stories about the western mannequins they make. In this corner of southern China, where most of the world's shop-window dummies are produced, belief in ghostly spirits is commonplace and westerners are referred to as 'white devils'.

Peasants from some of the poorest parts of China pour into the mannequin factories in Guangdong. Many have never seen a foreigner before and suddenly find themselves living in a concrete complex where legions of pale, alien-like men and women tower silently over them.

Some workers are fearful to be in the factories at night. Others are overwhelmed with embarrassment when they first have to handle a 'naked' mannequin. Most, however, overcome their superstitions to do a job that - with pay of up to 100 yuan a day - is one of the most lucrative factory jobs on the mainland. However, those wages come at a heavy cost to the migrant workers. There are shocking health risks associated with making the mannequins.

Across Guangdong, in crowded factory workshops, wearing no masks and lacking proper ventilation, workers breathe in lungfuls of carcinogenic fibreglass particles, choking polyester resin and paint fumes as they work around the clock to fulfil orders from faraway fashion stores. The factory managers cannot endure the dust-choked workshops for long.

'It's only in China that you can get workers to do jobs like this,' says Max, who prefers to be identified only by his first name. The 35-year-old Taiwanese co-owner of one of the province's biggest mannequin factories is leading us around his complex in Dongguan City. 'These workers don't care about the pollution and they don't care about their health. They only care about making money.

'My workers are among the highest-paid factory workers in China - they can earn more than 2,500 yuan a month even though their education is very poor. Most of them wouldn't even recognise words if you showed them some writing. That is why they end up doing these kinds of jobs.'

Posing as buyers for a new European high-street fashion chain, we are taken through the workshops where migrant workers, who live on site in grim dormitory blocks, piece the mannequins together with bare hands amid eye-watering fumes.

'Workers do get bad coughs,' Max admits. 'I used to work on the factory floor but I had to stop because I could feel the effect on my health. I can't go inside the workshops for long now. The smell is too overpowering. You can feel the harm it does to you.

'We give the workers masks to wear and tell them to put them on but they just laugh and throw them to one side. Sometimes clients visit and insist that workers wear masks. The workers say, 'OK', and put them on but they take them off as soon as the visitors have left.

'This isn't a job anyone with an education would do. If you do this job for long enough, you will get cancer. If our employees work flat out for two months without a break they will get sick - it might kill them. We let them retire to their rooms and take days off at a time when they need to.'

There are no health safeguards and no health insurance for workers in the mainland's mannequin factories. There is no proper protective clothing even though 20 years have passed since a World Health Organisation agency listed fibreglass as a probable human carcinogen and several overseas studies found significantly high rates of lung cancer among workers exposed to the material. On the mainland, the compensation for doing a job that might kill you is simply a higher salary.

Max's factory, which has 200 employees and produces 7,000 mannequins a month, is one of 10 major suppliers to leading fashion chains in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, Europe and the US. In busy clothes stores, mannequins need replacing at least every two years, so demand is constant.

Metal-framed moulds, from which thousands of models will be produced piece by piece, are prepared according to the specifications of each order and photographs of the desired look. Each figurine takes two to three days to make and costs between US$60 and US$80, depending on the quality and the finish.

It is a remarkably labour-intensive process and no machinery is in sight as workers crouch over the scattered body parts on a concrete factory floor.

An order usually calls for at least 5,000 mannequins. 'Of course we can make exact replicas of people if that is what they want,' says Max, proudly showing off a waxwork-like replica of a famous Taiwanese actor who once visited his factory. 'But this is just an expensive one-off.'

Chain stores rarely order mannequins direct from the manufacturer, instead they deal with distribution companies based in Singapore or Europe that buy in bulk from Chinese factories, re-label the mannequins then sell them on. Secrecy shrouds the supply chain, with factories barred from revealing the names of the distributors they sell to.

As a result, few of the shop owners ever see the factories where the dummies are made or witness the conditions of the workers who labour on the most prominent items in their window displays. 'It is very unusual for anyone to buy direct,' the general manager of one factory tells us. 'This is the first time a westerner has been inside our workshop.'

The mannequins at Max's factory are considered to be among the highest quality on the market and he claims they are used in a number of glamorous fashion stores. 'I have seen my mannequins in luxury brand-name shops when I go to Hong Kong and it makes me very happy,' he says.

There is no glamour to the life of migrant worker Zhou Binsheng, 37, who has worked at Max's factory for two years to support a wife and child in western Sichuan province. If he works hard, he says, he can earn 2,000 yuan a month.

'You can't do a job like this for too long because it is terrible for your health,' he says as he ladles fibreglass resin along the side joints of a pink torso.

'I cough all the time now. This work destroys your lungs and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

'Our bosses tell us to wear masks but what is the point?' he asks, gesturing at the dusty first-floor workshop, ventilated by a handful of standing fans and open windows. 'If we do, we just get too hot, and what can a cloth mask do to protect us from all this dust and stink?'

Given the underlying fears about the effects the work has on their health, it is hardly surprising that stories about the mannequins circulate. 'Workers do sometimes get scared at night,' says Max. 'They think the mannequins come alive or that their eyes move.

'It's especially unnerving for people who are new to the factory. They just see row after row of heads, just staring at them. They get very jittery if the wind blows through the workshop at night and moves the mannequins around ... All sorts of stories circulate.'

There is a fascination, too, among the small-framed workers for what seem like impossibly large mannequins for western markets. 'Asian mannequins have an 85cm bust but the European ones have a bust of about 97cm,' says Max. 'Asian mannequins are usually about 1.76 metres tall while European ones are around 1.82 metres.'

Making mannequins is an education in the different dimensions of women even from the same continent, Max has found. 'Mannequins of women that go to France and Italy are petite. Mannequins of English women are petite too, but not quite as petite as the French and Italian ones,' he says.

'Mannequins of German women on the other hand are much bigger - mannequins of women

from Sweden and Finland are the biggest of all the Europeans. Then we have had some special orders for mannequins of women with very big curves and breasts like footballs - they were for shops in the US selling sexy clothing. The workers were very bemused by the shapes they had to create.'

In the eight years he has run the Dongguan factory, Max says, he has noticed the size of European figures becoming larger. It is not something that is lost on the factory-floor workers. 'Westerners must be very big to have mannequins this size,' says Piao Shunji, 25. 'Maybe it is your genes or maybe it is the food you eat. Perhaps we should change our diet in China to be more like you.'

Her colleague Zhou Zuming says, 'Before I came to work here I didn't understand. Now I can see why Chinese teams always get beaten at football by teams from Europe. You westerners are like giants compared with us.'

Two hours away, in a cramped and untidy one-storey brick factory coated in fine white dust in Panyu district, Guangdong, workers are struggling to keep up with an overflowing order book that includes more than 100 mannequins for stores in the US. Workshop employees prefer the night shift, starting at 8pm and toiling until dawn, to avoid the stifling daytime heat of the summer months. Here, 100 workers produce about 3,000 mannequins a month, earning salaries ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 yuan.

Among the ranks of plastic replicas lining the walls of the shoddy tin-roofed factory building is a giant, 2-metre-tall fat man, known to workers as 'The Monster' and produced for a chain of stores selling clothes for oversized men in the Middle East.

Sucking hard on a cigarette as he takes a break outside the factory, Qian Shouning, 45, who earns up to 85 yuan a day spray-painting mannequins, says, 'It is a tough job and it is definitely harmful to my health. But when you are poor, survival is the most important thing. It is only the rich people who can afford to fret about their health.

'I have a family to support in Sichuan and I have no other skills. I'm too old to start a new job. The salary here is good enough for me to support my wife and my son. I could not afford to pay for his education if I was working back in the fields in my home village.'

One of the oldest mannequin factories in China is a Hong Kong-owned plant in Zhongshan, close to the southern tip of Guangdong province at the mouth of the Pearl River. 'We were among the very first,' says the company's general manager, Mr Qin, who gives only his surname. 'A lot of mannequins used to be made in Japan and we made very few here. Now they are all made in China because the process is very labour intensive - and labour is cheaper here.'

The plant's 100 workers make 80 mannequins a day and Qin is fully aware of the effects the process has on their health. 'When we are very busy, there is a lot of dust and pollution in the air,' he says. 'We tell our workers to wear masks but they always take them off. They complain it is too hot to wear them.

'We know it is dangerous to their health and we take what countermeasures we can. We use strong electric fans to take the dirty air out. We give them a subsidy in their wages for their health. How much they get depends on how long they have been here.'

Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based pressure group China Labour Bulletin, says: 'We would urge employers to take full responsibility for the workers and the working conditions of their factories rather than just paying higher wages. They should provide adequate medical insurance that covers all workplace injuries and illnesses related to working in these factories. That is what any responsible employer would do.

'Employers should ensure their workers operate in safe conditions and are provided with proper protective clothing and masks so they don't breathe in fibreglass fibres. They should also make sure the factories are properly insulated and provide regular health checks for workers.'

He added: 'We are very keen to make Hong Kong companies and Hong Kong consumers aware of the human cost of the products they consume. The most effective pressure consumers can exert is by not purchasing products where they feel workers are being forced to work in unsafe conditions.'

Back at his factory in Dongguan, Max appears troubled by the effect of his business on the health of his workers. He says he wants one day to invest in a plant and develop the technology to make more expensive but less harmful plastic-mould mannequins, avoiding the use of fibreglass and powerful resins.

With so much competition on price from high-street stores in Europe and the US, he knows it will be an uphill struggle. 'I want to close this factory and get out of the pollution business,' he says. 'I just don't want to do it any more. But to get rid of fibreglass mannequins, people will have to be prepared to pay more, and I'm not sure if they will.' He pauses for a minute before adding: 'In fact, I'm certain they won't.'

While he waits, the industry continues to grow, sucking in migrant workers to work for high salaries and correspondingly low life expectancies in small factories across southern China. Many are older, unskilled workers who would struggle to find work in any of the region's more hi-tech factories. Others though, are surprisingly young.

As he applies a coat of resin to the inside leg of a female mannequin, 24-year-old Zhong Guilin looks cheerful for a man doing a job that may make a ghost of him. 'I come from a coal-mining town in Henan province,' he says with a shrug. 'It might be dangerous here but it's not as dangerous as working down the mines - and that's where most of my friends from school are now.'