China’s Pearl River Delta, which includes Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Dongguan, stands as one of the most important industrial regions in China, and thus the world. Everywhere you turn, there are factories working at full tilt. They range in size from illegal workshops in a garage to mega-factories sprawling across as much area as a medium-sized American city.
Photographer Jocelyn Baun went to China in March 2011 to chronicle the work of newly formed groups acting on behalf of the workers in these factories. (The same trip provided the basis of the reporting for Latitude News‘ piece China’s bloody factories: A problem bigger than Foxconn).
The Pearl River Delta felt “cinder block grey” compared to Hong Kong. Initially I was happy to see factory workers well-clothed and having proper housing (read – simply a real roof over their heads, not a shack). That feeling quickly faded as I noticed compound after compound of factories. It was eerily quiet. I found it weird to think that there are hundreds or even tens of thousands working and living behind the gates. Then there was the smell – the Longgang area of Shenzhen reeked of fumes and outside one factory what was once a stream had no water left in it, only trash. In “Foxconn city” I felt so alien – EVERYONE wore Foxconn jackets, the nice ones your company might give as a gift. Men wore black ones and the women pink vests.
With all this industry comes a distinct human cost. I encountered an epidemic of hand injuries. In almost all the cases I documented, workers were maimed because a factory cut corners in order to increase production.
One response to that epidemic is a burgeoning labor movement. While China has a national trade union, the workers feel it represents owners, not laborers. So ex-workers turned self-trained labor lawyers have begun their own advocacy groups, alongside non-governmental organizations like China Labor Watch.
A year after my trip, looking back at these photos, I am still struck by how widespread serious hand injuries are in the Pearl River Delta. Everytime I use my laptop, iPad, see a Dell computer or drive by a Wal-Mart, I think: “who was hurt so I can use or buy this thing?”
Jocelyn Baun went to China with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.