Sweaters, skirts and jackets: around half of the clothes manufactured worldwide say “Made in China”. But the textile industry there is in crisis.
A large square in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou. It is the job placement zone for the textile industry here. This takes up an entire district. Cloth dealers, embroidery shops, printing shops, sewing workshops are packed tightly together over five square kilometers – everything you need to make clothes.
Legend: Factory bosses advertise their workshop on the side of the road in the hope of getting orders. SRF/Samuel Emch
Seamstresses looking for work
Hundreds of unemployed seamstresses stand on the concrete square, discuss and wait. Seamstress Wang Lubi says: “They are all employees, but no one is recruiting.”
Legend: Seamstresses are looking for temporary work on the new, large job marketplace in the district. SRF/Samuel Emch
But every now and then crowds of people form – when a factory owner or a workshop boss comes. Easily recognizable because they each wear blouses, trousers and jackets on their arms. Clothes that need sewing.
The seamstresses feel the fabrics and look at the seams. Wang Lubi studies a fine woman’s jacket and top that a factory owner has on his arm.
Caption: Seamstress Wang Lubi looks at a piece of clothing. But the workshop boss offers too little money per piece sewn. SRF/Samuel Emch
Wang Lubi is discussing with a colleague. The workshop boss offers the equivalent of 50 centimes for the top and not even two francs per sewn jacket. Many people here actually have jobs, but their employers don’t have orders. Wang Lubi is also only looking for a temporary job.
Bad year for the textile industry
Sewing workshops, fabric dealers, cloth printers – all currently have few orders. Business is not just slow because it is shoulder season, say many who have their businesses in the narrow streets.
Things are also not going well in Ms. Xiong and Mr. Jiang’s sewing workshop this year. But at least the 15 employees have work. The workshops above and below are at a standstill.
Legend: The sewing workshop of director Xiong and production manager Jiang still has work. The year was mixed. SRF/Samuel Emch
Social media and wages influence business
Mr. Jiang, who has worked in the industry for 26 years and is responsible for operations at the small clothing factory, said online retail and social media have accelerated business.
They would primarily produce for local Tiktok sellers. The big brands also place their orders with large factories in India or Vietnam.
His employees earned the equivalent of around four francs per hour. Plus room and board. That’s five to ten times what seamstresses in Bangladesh and Vietnam earn.
Caption: The seamstresses in Mr. Jiang’s workshop earn significantly more than those working in Bangladesh or Vietnam. SRF/Samuel Emch
Expensive – but good and efficient
In an industry that is always looking for the cheapest needle, this is a competitive disadvantage. However, China’s textile workers are internationally competitive in terms of quality and speed. Especially here in Guangzhou.
Fabrics are delivered to the cloth market within hours. A sewer next door immediately produces a pattern. And the desired clothes will be produced by the next day.
Legend: Fabric – ready to be made into clothes. SRF/Samuel Emch
Almost half a million people work in this fast-moving, colorful textile hub. How long is another question, says boss Xiong: “I heard they want to renovate here.”
Forced out of the quarters
The entire area is being renovated. That’s what the city wants. And the textile industry, which has grown here over decades to become a global hub for clothing production, no longer fits into these plans.
Legend: Entire workshops in the textile district are advertised for sale. The district is to be “urbanized”. According to the city authorities, the textile industry should be relocated to an industrial area around 100 kilometers away. SRF/Samuel Emch
Tens of thousands of companies have to relocate to an industrial park an hour and a half outside the city. The people in the textile industry here are not only concerned about geopolitical but also local political developments.
Factbox: Guangzhous Textilindustrie
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Since the 1980s, a huge textile industry has developed in Guangzhou. The heart of it is the Zhongda market, which spreads across an entire district and where clothes are made around the clock. Market figures:
25,000 companies, 480,000 employees, around 5 km², over 25 billion francs in sales per year