Harper's Bazaar
January 2007

The Fake Trade: Wanted For Stealing Childhoods
By Dana Thomas

Wen Xixia is a shy 15-year-old Chinese girl from Lianshan, a densely forested mountain region in southeastern China. She's small-standing about 4-foot-10-with long black hair that she pulls back in a ponytail and sweet, dark eyes. Wen comes from a big family for China: she has an older brother and sister as well as a younger brother. (Her family is Yao, one of the ethnic minority groups that does not adhere to the government's one child policy.) Wen's mother and father worked in forestry until the Chinese government turned the forests in their region into protected nature reserves. The family now lives on small welfare payments that barely cover necessities such as food.

Two years ago, at 13, Wen decided to help support her family, a common burden for the children of peasant families. She quit school and followed her older brother and sister's leads by making her way about 200 miles via bus to Guangzhou, a bustling industrial city of 8.2 million that is a world center for counterfeit manufacturing. Though the legal working age in China is 16, factory owners seeking cheap, unskilled labor are known to turn a blind eye when underage children apply. Because of this, Wen easily found a job at a garment factory through the employment network. Wages average $50 to $100 a month. Like her co-workers, Wen sent all of her earnings home to her parents and rarely went to visit. Not until their late 20s, do most young Chinese factory workers return to their village, marry and raise their own family.

In late 2004, I visited factories in the Guangzhou area while doing research for my upcoming book about the luxury fashion business, Deluxe. At the factories that produce legitimate goods by day (and often counterfeit goods at night), the workrooms are immense-as big as a football field-with dozens of long tables where workers stand under fluorescent lighting, assembling or sewing or gluing or painting for hours at a stretch. The factory where Wen worked was noisy and crowded. Workers are not required to and usually do not wear protective gear like earplugs. The workers, most often girls, dress in simple uniform shirts and cotton trousers. Their hair is pulled back out of the way and they wear no make-up or jewelry. It's straight assembly-line work. No one speaks. Shifts usually run ten-plus hours, but workers often take back-to-back shifts. It is not unusual to read in the newspaper about workers who drop dead from exhaustion.

The complete article appears in the January Bazaar.

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