Reporter's Notebook: Inside a Chinese Factory Town

PHOTO Young workers assemble umbrellas in a factory in Songxia, China, Nov. 2010.
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Our journey to the factory towns south of Shanghai began early in the morning, just as the day does for the estimated 140 million Chinese workers who have moved away from their families and their homes to go work in the factories closer to China's east coast.

During our trip south, the billboards were more telling than any city sign. On one stretch of highway, there are countless billboards for zippers. There are entire towns here devoted to manufacturing one product.

We visit Songxia, China, two hours south of Shanghai, where much of the town has devoted itself to manufacturing umbrellas. The large factory sits among others like it, with a vast warehouse.

And right beside the factory, sits a dormitory for workers. They live in small rooms they now call home. Many of the workers share these rooms with others. It's a trade-off for what they say is a job and a chance to send money earned home to their families in rural China.

On the fourth floor we meet Chang Yuna, 22-years-old and about to start her day at 7 a.m. She left her family, hundreds of miles away in Chengdu. She told us she brought nothing but a small bag of clothes and a prized wooden jewelry box when she left home to come work in the factory. She is like many of the younger factory workers who now say they have no plans to return to rural China, a generational shift from their parents and grandparents before them.

Her daily routine begins with a simple five-minute walk, past the guard, beside the factory buildings and into the towering doorway where she makes her way to sewing machine number 52. With her bosses with us, she tells us she works eight hours each day, five days a week and that sometimes there is overtime. She makes $14 a day, $270 a month. Half of that money automatically goes home to her family.

"Even though these factories pay wages that seem ridiculously low to us they can quadruple the wealth of a family in a year," Ted Fishman, author of the book "China, Inc." told us. "Every person who walks into a factory from a farm is taking their family outside of an economy in which there virtually no money changing hands, subsistence economy into the modern industrial economy. So a wage of a beginning factory worker could quadruple, quintuple the wages of an entire family."

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She gets a daily lunch at the factory and her room is paid for by the factory, but there is no health insurance here. She is just one of dozens of workers we see at sewing machines and assembly tables at this umbrella factory. The factory tells us each worker will sew 40 umbrellas an hour, 1,600 a week. By year's end, that's 80,000 umbrellas a year from each worker like Chang. More than half those umbrellas will be sold in the United States. The factory chairman Lu Xinmiao reveals to us one of their biggest clients is Costco.

We continue our journey further south. Two more hours on the road finds us in Datang, China, where we visit a factory that produces socks.

We meet Chen Guifang, who has been working here for four years now. She runs eight machines in the factory, working up a sweat on her forehead, and carefully measuring each sock.

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