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Dark side of the jeans industry in China

Every morning, workers need to fish out stones (for stone washing jeans) from sewage tanks. Hand sanding and bleaching, the two key processes for making vintage jeans, not only affect the lives of neighboring residents but also the health of the workers in the industry. All of the 10 fingers have been dyed blue and they suffer from continuous skin itching. Photo: Greenpeace

As a typical industrial town, the seemingly prosperous Xintang of Guangdong province is suffering from heavy pollution brought by the jeans industry.

Workers are processing jeans at a makeshift shelter in Jiuyu village of Xintang. Manual processing of jeans could be seen everywhere in the town. Photo: Greenpeace

It takes 40 minutes to drive from Guangzhou to Xintang, the No. 1 town for jeans industry in China. It is said that out of every three jeans sold in the world, one is  from Xintang.

All the factories here look alike, though they are neither family workshops nor batch-type production lines. The first floor of the factory is used mostly as a storage room with jeans of varied designs packed high on the ground, and middle-aged women sitting by the open door, busy with their scissors. Inside, one can see people doing manual jobs like ironing, pressing, or sewing buttons. The actual manufacturing plant is located on the second or third floor. The executives and designers have offices on a mezzanine floor between the first and second floors.
More than three decades ago, some businessmen from Hong Kong set up the first jeans processing factory in Datun village, Xintang. Now, the town sees 2.5 million jeans coming off the production lines for supply to the whole world.

Afa is one of the most senior designers in Chenpeng Clothing Factory, having worked there for five years.

A worker laboring in a jeans washing workshop. Among all the processes of jeans making, dyeing and washing cause the most severe pollution to waterways. Photo: Greenpeace

With dozens of workers and five designers, Chenpeng can be considered as a medium-sized garment factory in Xintang. Actually, it is the number of experienced designers but not the number of workers that determines the strength of a clothing factory.

If the order for a pattern reaches over 5,000 pairs, then for every extra piece sold, the designer could get a commission of 0.1 yuan ($0.016 dollar). Every designer wishes for the day of a big sale. Afa’s first success came in 2009, when he successfully sold out 50,000 jeans in one pattern within a month.

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