In the next room it's all black and silver caps.
Downstairs are the sock machines, the most extraordinary things I've ever seen. Rows and rows of buzzing whizzing vertical knitting machines, all capped with a big perspex bubble where a sock is being brought into existence in mid-air, one at a time. The workers load them up with giant spools of thread and coloured wool, programme a panel of backlit buttons, then after five minutes of quiet and determined whirring, the spools spinning at great speed, a fully formed striped fluffy pink sock starts to appear in the bubble, stripe by programmed stripe, then finally pops out of a plastic tube at the side of the machine into a tub. Like some kind of crazy sock incubator, I kept thinking about the room full of pods incubating aliens in Alien, the movie, but these were all incubating fluffy fluorescent socks.
We should have been madly photographing, but there we all were, cameras at our sides, struck dumb by how socks are made.
Every now and then one of the feathery fluffy threads would snap, and with a sigh, a worker would lift the perspex bubble and rethread down into the innards of the machine to get it going again. I can honestly say up until now I have never given the making of socks a single, solitary thought. Who knew it would be so fascinating and so very, highly, technical??
I paid a visit to the canteen, a big plain room in an adjacent building. Nearly everyone was eating their own food, so perhaps the cateen food wasn't all that appetising, or perhaps it was to save money, likely both. Unlike the workroom, the lunchroom was noisy and boisterous, and full of chat and jokes.
Back in the factory, I wondered if it had been sanitised for our visit? There were no signs of this, certainly nothing had the appearance of being hurriedly tidied up to put on a good show, and there were no areas off-limits to us. Perhaps we just got permission to visit the 'right' factory, but I've seen the inside of a few factories now, and what has struck me about all of them is how unlike sweatshops they all are. Once again, our preconceptions of what really goes on in China are being challenged.
Do dirty, dangerous workplaces exist in China? Of course they do, in droves, but increasingly Chinese workers have clean, relatively safe workplaces and standards are on the improve. By our yardstick, the pay is poor, but increasingly reports are being heard of workers demanding, and getting, pay increases; or of factory bosses forced to offer higher wages to attract sufficient workers. I guess the bottom line is that factory work is menial and poorly paid wherever you are in the world, and while we keep buying cute leopard fur hats for our kids, someone, somewhere, is making them.
It was a fascinating insight, food for thought, and I'll certainly never look at a sock the same way again....