Book: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China 

Author: Leslie T. Chang (2009)

Review: Jacobus Boers, Senior Lecturer, Director – Master of International Business Program, Director – Global Partners MBA, Institute of International Business, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University

Many of us are not completely comfortable with the idea that products that we love might be made by unfortunate workers in sweatshops in Asia, or for that matter anywhere in the world. We often hear allegations of some of our favorite brands participating in a supply chain “tainted” by sweatshop practices.  Most of the time we do little more than shake our heads and shrug our shoulders.  

I am often confronted by the need to dig a little deeper, either by millennial undergraduate students passionate about fairness and equity or by graduate students being asked to make recommendations on appropriate action to be taken by management in a business case. Often the analysis presented at first is shallow and reflects strong preconceived ideas about the work, about labor practices and about the modern supply chain. The task then is to reflect on assumptions and the very difficult task of collecting reliable data.

In my search for perspectives on the sweatshops of Asia and the experience of the workers – something quite often completely absent from the discourse about ethical decision-making and corporate social responsibility – I discovered this gem. Chang spent three years in Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta where many of the goods we consume are assembled.  “Factory Girls” is the account of the lives of the young women she befriended during this period, who offer reflections about their situation and their futures.

I have reread this book, and what strikes me every time is the optimism and the hope reflected in the discourse between Chang and workers.  The conditions they describe are at times alarming and make you uncomfortable, and yet their perspectives are not of anger but of hope and optimism. This sentiment felt familiar: Having grown in Apartheid era South Africa I always marveled at the optimism and hope of the country’s black majority in stark contrast to the frequent pessimism of the rather well-off minority.

I strongly recommend this book for other Global Atlanta readers.  It will challenge you to look at your supply chain, your preferred brands and also your role as a consumer in new ways. It may leave you feeling justified that the products you use may not originate in questionable factories, but it may also make you appreciate these same products in new ways. What it will most assuredly do is show the motivation that drives many Chinese workers from villages to factories and from there slowly but surely into an aspirational middle class that is now powering Asia’s economies. This same force built the powerful American industrial and consumer machine and is sure to once again leave enormous economic prosperity in its wake.

If you are not up for the slogging through the book you can always find an audio version or watch the video “The Voices of China’s Workers by Leslie T. Chang on

Read Mr. Boers’ review from last year: Business Lessons From China’s Peasants

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...