CHINA - Protecting fingers has turned into a lucrative industry for Shandong sewers
It is early winter, and the sound in the air is an incessant whirring of sewing machines.
"At busy times of the year, hundreds of workers are at those machines about eight hours a day," says Meng Hongjian.
This day, about 100 women are sitting behind rows of sewing machines. Meng, general manager of Jining Yicheng Glove Co Ltd, points out that winter is a slack season for the glove makers.
The factory, in Dazhanglou, Jiaxiang county, Shandong province, is one of 11 such factories that Meng, who has been making and selling sports gloves for more than 20 years, runs.
The company says it turns out 2.2 million pairs a year, ranking it second among the county's 227 glove-making companies in terms of production.
The county produced gloves worth 3 billion yuan ($494 million) last year, 27.5 per cent higher than six years earlier.
The industry in the county focuses on sports gloves, mainly for skiing, hunting and shooting, says Wang Ruifeng, deputy director of the county's organisation that represents small and medium-sized enterprises.
Ninety-five per cent of the county's sports gloves are exported, going to more than 30 countries and regions, including European countries, Japan and the United States.
Jiaxiang accounts for more than 70 per cent of China's sports glove exports, Wang says. It exported 72 million pairs of sports gloves last year, accounting for 73 per cent of the country's exports of sports gloves, the China Knitting Industrial Association says.
About 80 per cent of Jiaxiang's glove businesses are conducted in the form of original equipment manufacturing (OEM), and it makes gloves for global heavyweights such as Reusch of Germany, North Face of the US and Reima of Finland.
It all began in 1987 when a joint venture, Sanyuan Industry Co Ltd, was founded in the county to make gloves for customers in Taiwan. Although that venture eventually folded in the 1990s, it begat thousands of workers and businesspeople in Jiaxiang who eventually knew the business inside out.
Man Changtong, chairman of Jining Glove and Sewing Product Co Ltd, says he owes his success to the joint venture.
"I would not have known how to expand overseas without the experience I gained with Sanyuan," says Man, who worked as a salesman at the joint venture for 10 years. At least 80 per cent of the glove bosses in Jiaxiang once worked for Sanyuan, he says.
Man is said to have been the first entrepreneur in the county to have sought out customers by taking part in trade shows overseas.
"The shows brought me more than 80 foreign customers," he says.
Other people in the trade in Jiaxiang followed suit and began to take part in trade shows overseas, too.
To sell their wares, glove company bosses have also climbed on the e-commerce bandwagon. Among them is Li Xianqing, chairman of Jining Tianjiu Industry and Trade Co Ltd, whose company says it has spent 500,000 yuan developing an e-commerce platform since 2005. Online orders account for 80 per cent of the company's business, it says.
But many in the industry recognise that it is its abundance of skilled, experienced workers that forms its backbone.
"I tried six times to open a glove-making factory in other cities, but failed because there weren't enough experienced workers," Man says.
Meng says: "A good worker needs at least two years of experience. You can tell how good a worker is just by listening to their sewing machine."
The knitting is crucial to gloves because the tiniest flaw can result in a customer canceling an order, he says.
"In knitted gloves, the knitting structure in particular sections can improve comfort and performance or reduce hand fatigue. That includes varying stitching over the knuckles, which can increase flexibility. Once the knitting is done, finishing treatment can be customised to improve protection in certain areas. Skilled workers can do this more easily than can novices."
To raise skills and quality, the local government is encouraging companies to improve innovation. By the end of last year 47 local companies had set up research and development centers. This has resulted in more than 60 kinds of technology receiving patent protection.
"Without a creative mindset and actions in line with the market, companies will be left behind," says Wang, who sees China's foreign trade upgrading as an opportunity for local companies to build their own brands.
A report published by the Ministry of Commerce in October said China will carry forward policies and measures to encourage companies to boost innovation processes, improve the quality of their products, create global brands and set up international marketing networks.
"Our OEM orders fell substantially in the US and the European Union in 2008 because of the global financial crisis," Wang says.
"We realised we had to develop self-owned brands."
Local companies have developed more than 20 brands, including Kineed and Suntex.
"If you want to earn more, you have to develop high value-added products," Man says.
He has registered the trademark Jining Glove Texx One with the EU Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market and the waterproofing trademark NexTex in China.
Now half of the 1.2 million gloves Man's company makes that are sold overseas bear the label NexTex in addition to foreign trademarks.
It was extremely expensive building a brand and looking for overseas buyers, he says.
"I spent four years registering the trademark with the EU Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market and it cost me 3,000 euros. It's hard to break into the European and US markets because their standards are so high. So we have taken care to expand research and development projects."
OEM orders will continue to account for the lion's share of the county's sales, he says.
As Jiaxiang strives to establish itself as a glove production centre known worldwide, and to better serve foreign customers, bosses in the county have started learning English.
As the glove-making companies have grown in the county over more than 20 years, about 50 ancillary companies producing glove-making equipment and materials have sprung up. At least 10 transport companies that service these industries have also been established.
In turn, all of this has inspired a 33-hectare industrial park that is due to be completed within the next three weeks. The park, costing 800 million yuan, will incorporate areas where gloves will be designed, exhibited, produced and sold. So far, 12 local companies have signed up to build facilities in the park, Wang says.
Glove-related companies from other provinces will also have a presence. The park is expected to generate annual sales of 2 billion yuan and create jobs for 10,000 people, he says.
To ensure quality, the county's authority for quality supervision and inspection and the county glove industry association have formulated minimum standards for ski gloves. These and other industry standards are being policed by the Shandong provincial authority.
As the sewing machines continue to work overtime in Dazhanglou, the farm machinery, tools and heavy manual work of Tuanli village, 20 kilometers away, have ground to a halt. For farmers, winter is a time of rest. Before the really cold weather sets in, dozens of men are playing cards outside.
But not far away, in a 400 square meter, two-story workshop, there is that familiar whirring sound. Like their fellow workers in Dazhanglou, 30 women are busy making gloves.
"I'm old, but I am able to support myself, so this makes me happy," says Cao Yuxiang, 75.
Her job is to trim the thread ends, for which she can earn as much as 900 yuan a month at busy times.
"Before coming here (the family workshop), I had nothing to do but stay at home," she says. "So it's not bad at all."
Cao and her workmates are on the first floor of the workshop. The ground floor is where the owner's family live. It is also used to store gloves.
Apart from farmers such as Cao who work in family workshops in the village, some farming families make gloves at home on a piece-work basis.
Chen Jianhua, head of the county's glove industry association, is delighted with how the industry is improving farmers' lives.
"Before 2008, dozens of buses would come to the county after the Spring Festival to take hundreds of women to work in cities in the south. It was heartbreaking to see elderly people and children seeing these women off, with tears in their eyes."
By the end of last year, Jiaxiang had about 700 small workshops located in nearly 600 villages, accounting for 85 per cent of the villages in the county. These village workshops created jobs for 50,000 farmers, the county government says.
Wang Lixia, 26, has been working at sewing machines for eight years. She worked in a city in the south for two years before returning to her hometown and working at Jining Hee Ka Lee Sport Products Co Ltd. She now heads a section in the company and is paid 2,000 yuan a month.
"The company is near my home, so I can have lunch at home and feed my son," she says.
Chen says: "We are seeing people's lifestyles changing. This is encouraging us to better manage the industry."
One problem that besets the industry is a shortage of labour. Some companies say they are 10 per cent short of the number they need.
"A pair of gloves goes through more than 20 procedures, so it is highly labour intensive," says Meng Hongjian.
Wang, of the county's official organisation for small and medium-sized enterprises, says solutions to solve the labour shortage include raising workers' skills and upgrading equipment.
Local authorities plan to set up training programs for novices in the industry over the next two years, he says.