Author’s Note: Outside of my work for Beijing Scene in 1999, Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man was probably my first serious bit of journalism. The brief backstory is that in 1998 I was hired by a company called Cal Safety Compliance to act as a compliance inspector, i.e., Sweatshop Inspector in factories in Taiwan, HK and China. It was an emotionally grueling job, and I lasted less than a year.
Eventually, I went slightly mad and floated around SE Asia for a couple of months before winding up in Beijing to work for Beijing Scene Magazine (where my writing career really started).
In 2000 I was back in the USA, writing for a couple of local magazines in Colorado, and felt like I had the chops to try to get my sweatshop story in front of a wider audience.
I pitched Dog Meat Man to The Nation and was surprised when they commissioned it from me for a whopping $300 bucks. I wrote the story you’re about to read for The Nation in the middle of the year, and though the editor who’d commissioned it swore up and down that she loved it, for whatever reason The Nation kept delaying publication. About a year later, the editor wrote me to tell me it didn’t look like the story would run at all, but she encouraged me to float it around elsewhere. (They still paid me, which was nice.)
So I sent it to an online publication called The Albion Monitor, who ran it with one change. The Editor of the Monitor (who’d I’d go on to write many more stories from China for in the coming years) liked the story. However, he felt that my original title “Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man”, which was inspired by the Chinese phrase 挂羊头卖狗肉 (“Hang sheep’s head sell dog meat”) was a bit too obscure and changed it to the somewhat more direct “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector”. The article eventually found its way into some academic publications, about which I’m quite proud, and I got letters about it for a few years.
The Albion Monitor continued publishing until the mid-2000’s, but they’ve kept the website up for posterity. This article is still online (as Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector).
Otherwise, this is the original article. Unlike much of my earlier stuff, I’ve resisted the temptation to re-edit this article (except for including a few new sub-headers). I think it’s still pretty good after all these years.
Halfway over the Pacific, it dawns on me that I have no idea what my job is.
It’s October 15, 1998, and twelve hours ago, I was in the southern California offices of an independent monitoring company that inspects factories for safety violations and human rights abuses throughout the world. I had been hired over the phone a few days before. My sole qualification for the job? I speak Chinese and have a friend already working for the company. I assumed that there would be some sort of lengthy training process to teach me how to be a human rights inspector. There wasn’t.
Arriving in Los Angeles, I’m taken to Denny’s by another inspector, then back to the office, where I putter around for a few hours before being driven back to the airport to catch my plane to Taiwan. I tell my manager that I feel a bit unprepared for the task ahead.
“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” he tells me, handing me a suitcase full of folders containing the names and addresses of 23 factories in Taiwan and $26 a day for meals.
“You’ll meet your partner in Taiwan, he’ll show you the ropes,” he says, passing me the company handbook. “You can learn about OSHA regulations and the manufacturers’ codes of conduct on the airplane.”
First Day on the Job
My partner’s name is John, but everybody calls him Heart Attack. I find him sprawled on the floor of our Taipei hotel room early the next morning. Pieces of reports, violation sheets and photographs of factories are scattered over the floor. John is rooting through the mess, whining that he’d been awakened by a call from Marty at 4AM, something about a “failure to assess back wages in Saipan.” Heart Attack looks extremely tense. “Back wages, John,” he babbles in a mocking falsetto. “Assess the back wages, don’t forget the back wages.” I introduce myself, telling him I’m to be his partner, and he’s supposed to train me. He looks up at me, eyes wide with loathing.
“Training you?! Me? They’re going to fire me over this Saipan thing, but first they want me to train my own replacement, right? I’m not going to dig my own grave, no thanks!”
Things are tense, and I haven’t even dropped my suitcase yet. I try to defuse the situation by offering to buy him a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby, assuring him that I know nothing about Saipan, or of any plans to fire him. Heart Attack seems to relax.
“Sorry about that,” he says, getting up to shake my hand. “Nobody trained me to assess back wages, you know.”
Not even knowing what he means by “back wages,” I nod dumbly. I’m to spend the next two weeks learning how to be an inspector from Heart Attack. Despite his apparent neurosis, he has the instincts of a bloodhound and proves himself an excellent inspector. On the job just over three months at the time, he’s already considered a veteran at the company.
“This company has a turnover rate higher than most burger joints,” he warns me over coffee.
Learning from Heart Attack
I’m learning from Heart Attack how this business works. Inspectors go into factories all over the world looking for signs of worker exploitation, egregious safety violations, child labor and quota violations. We are paid by our clients, major manufacturers whose stores and products are household names. On a good day, our company earns thousands of dollars from a few international inspections. The inspectors themselves are paid minimal hourly wages, with no benefits. Inspectors are expected to work 70-hour weeks and to be on call 24 hours a day for calls from the L.A. office. The worse a factory is, the more often inspectors are sent, and the more money the company makes.
My first day on the job, Heart Attack and I perform two surprise inspections. The first factory is a re-audit of a factory producing goods for Kmart.
“Man, the last guy they sent really botched this inspection,” Heart Attack says. “Look at this report.” The report is for an inspection performed a year ago. It’s written so generically that the writer could easily have been describing half of the medium-sized cookware factories in Taiwan. The factory had been given a low-risk assessment, ending with the often-used line, “The inspector was unable to find any violations that would be considered a risk at this medium-sized factory.” I think that maybe we were at the wrong facility because the one we are in is an unmistakable hellhole — a dark basement factory with poor ventilation and dangerous equipment. There’s no first-aid kit, and the fire extinguishers expired around the same time as Chiang Kai-shek.
We interview the workers. They tell me they’re paid only half of what they had been promised by contract, and one of the Thai workers confides in me that he wants to run away, but the boss keeps all his documents locked in a safe. I ask them why they didn’t tell this to the last inspector, and they stare at me blankly.
“A foreigner visited last year, but he didn’t talk to us. Was he from your company?”
I bring these problems up to the factory manager, and he looks at me as if I’m insane.
“What problem?!” the manager says. “The last guy say everything OK! I sign paper, he leave! Why you bother me again!?” Later I call into our office and ask a manager just how the previous inspector could have given this sweatshop a low-risk rating. “That guy didn’t work out,” I’m told.
A few days later, Heart Attack and I are in central Taiwan, and I’m learning a lot more about the business. There seems to be an absolute lack of consistency in the attitudes of inspectors working for us.
“Everybody has their own focus,” John tells me. “Like, there are some who I call eye-wash inspectors. They can go into the worst factory in China and head straight for the first-aid kit. They’ll ignore all of the other violations, and write three paragraphs in their report about how there was no eye-wash in the kit. Then they come back home and brag about how they can do five factories a day.” I ask him why these eye-wash inspectors don’t get fired for incompetence. He smirks and rubs his thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol for payola. “This company cares about quantity, not quality,” John says. We approach the factory, a place producing belt buckles for Calvin Klein. The facility has been under inspection for quite some time, and not by slacking eye-wash inspectors. This place has been thoroughly raked over.
“Look at this last report!” Heart Attack hands me the previous inspection team’s violation list. It has some pretty damning violations:
- Dangerous metal-melting chemicals being mixed in vats by workers wearing flip-flop sandals;
- Overtime not being paid at legal rate;
- Imported workers denied access to their passports
- 90 hour work weeks
There is a tacit agreement that what we write in our reports will be read by the manufacturers, who are supposed to pull out of those factories found to be continually in violation of their codes of conduct. Were this truly the case, we would not even be here: This factory has been on the high-risk list for two years. I ask Heart Attack if he thinks the client will pull out of this factory soon, and he snorts derisively.
“We’ve been here five times already, and every time the factory gets a high risk,” says Heart Attack. “Calvin Klein won’t pull out of this factory until we find 9 year-olds chained to arc welders and strung out on speed. The boss knows that we’re only paper tigers.” Nonetheless, I try to convince the boss to mend his ways. Heart Attack is a crude man, a rare breed of sinophile, able to speak Chinese without an ounce of Chinese manners.
I, on the other hand, have spent much of my adult life in Asia. I understand the use of polite shaming. I appeal to the boss’s sense of patriotism and reputation.
“News crews might come here one day,” I tell him, switching from Mandarin Chinese to the native Taiwanese dialect. “The poor conditions we’ve found here might cause a loss of face to both you and the Taiwanese business community. Mainlanders will look at you and tell the world that the Taiwanese have no heart.”
The boss nods politely, promises to make the improvements suggested in our report and invites us to have dinner with him. We decline, explaining that it goes against our own company’s code of conduct. We are forced to give this factory yet another high-risk rating. The owner signs our findings sheet without a glance.
Two weeks after our swing through Taiwan began, Heart Attack and I are trying to get all our reports in before returning to America. We have been awake for 30 hours straight. He tells me we’ve had a successful trip. Of the 23 factories on our list, we found 22 of them and were only denied access to one. Tallying up our profit and loss sheet, we figure that we’ve earned the company more than $20,000 in profit. I’ve been working 13-hour days for two weeks, and am looking forward to reaching San Francisco for some R&R.
While I am excited by my new job, I’m beginning to wonder just whose needs I’m serving. Am I helping the industry clean up its dirty laundry, or just to bury it a little further from the noses of the American consumer?
Going to China
November 15, 1998
There is a long trench with imposing razor ribbon fences on either side, and one bridge running across it. This is the path that leads from Hong Kong to China. This is where I’ll be spending the next three weeks.
It’s my second trip as a sweatshop inspector and my first trip into mainland China. Before leaving the office in L.A., one of the senior inspectors took me aside and told me that “no factory in China should ever get a low-risk rating.” It was explained to me that all factories in China were so far against the clients’ stated codes of conduct that if one were to be given anything other than a high-medium risk, whoever reviewed the report in the office would assume the on-site inspector hadn’t really looked. I naively asked him why we even bothered inspecting factories if we knew that they’d fail; the senior inspector looked at me like I was nuts.
It is also the first trip for my Hong Kong partner, Jack Li. Despite the fact that I’ve been on the job for only one month, I will be training him. Before I leave the office, I’m given a chunk of cash to pay Jack’s salary. His pay is half of my own, with no overtime pay. His per diem food allowance is $6 less than mine. How ironic, going overseas to uncover disparity in the workplace while committing it myself on my employer’s behalf.
I feel disgusted with myself, and decide to split the difference of our per diems between us.
Jack and I inspect a typical Chinese factory a couple of days later. We find almost every violation in the book. The workers are pulling 90-hour weeks. The place has no fire extinguishers or fire exits and is so jammed full of material that a small fire could explode into an inferno within a minute. There are no safety guards on the sewing machines, and the first-aid box holds only packages of instant noodles. Most of the workers are from the inland provinces, so I conduct the employee interviews in Mandarin while leaving Jack to grill the owners in Cantonese.
With the bosses out of earshot, I fully expect the workers to pour out their sorrows to me, to beg me to tell the consumers of America to help them out of their misery. I’m surprised at what I hear.
“I’m happy to have this job,” is the essence of what several workers tell me. “At home, I’m a drain on my family’s resources. But now, I can send them money every month.”
I point out that they make only $100 a month; they remind me this is about five times what they can make in their home province. I ask if they feel like they’re being exploited, having to work 90 hours a week. They laugh.
“We all work piece-rate here. More work, more money.”
The worst part of the day for them, it seemed, was seeing me arrive. “I don’t want to tell you anything because you’ll close my factory and ruin any chances I have at having a better life one day,” one tells me.
I ask if they feel like they’re being exploited, having to work 90 hours a week. They laugh
Jack and I tell the owner that she needs to buy fire extinguishers, put actual first-aid supplies in the first-aid kits, install safety equipment on the sewing machines, and reduce worker hours to below 60 per week. We figure if she takes care of the first two tasks, we’ve helped to make the world a slightly less ugly place.
The Dog Meat Men
It’s too late to hit another factory, so we sit down for some tea with the owner. We’ve just finished faulting her for just about every health, safety, and payroll violation in the book, but she remains an excellent host.
“Thank you for caring so much about our poor Chinese factory workers,” she tells us. “But really, it’s all about profit. If I paid my workers more money, I’d have to raise the price to my buyers, the people who are sending you here to inspect my factory. Do you think they would accept that?”
I try to explain to her that a new consciousness is developing among American consumers and that all of the American garment producers are trying their best to clean up their factories.
“Gua yang tou, mai gou rou,” she replies, quoting an old Chinese proverb.
Translated: “Hang a sheep head but serve dog meat.”
“Calvin Klein, Wal-mart, Kathie Lee: They all want the same thing. Chinese labor, the cheaper the better,” she smiles, pouring the tea. “They all want to project a smiling face, to appear to be caring and compassionate, because that makes people feel better about buying the products that have their names.
“But we both know that all they care about is money,” she continues. “If I did all the things you told me to do, my clothing would become more expensive to the manufacturers. Then they would just use a cheaper factory, one in Vietnam or someplace even less regulated than China.”
Finally, it hits me. I understand why my employer doesn’t care if we do a good job or not. We aren’t here to help change anything; we’re only a PR prophylactic. Hiring an industry-friendly “independent” inspection company is the most cost-effective way for the manufacturers to maintain their profits while claiming to care about the people on whose sweat their profits depend.
Jack and I finish our tea, thank the owner for her hospitality, and head back to our hotel, just a couple of sheep heads working for the dog-meat man.
Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man ran originally as Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector at the Albion Monitor, 9/1/2001. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Inspector Heart Attack, please contact the author at josambro AT gmail.com.