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In China's Cities, a Turn From Factories

Dongguan, a dreary expanse of gray, concrete-block buildings in the Pearl River Delta, has long had a reputation for aggressive cost cutting. Its companies have reputations as egregious offenders of workplace standards. About 1 million jobs are vacant here alone, according to the provincial government.

The Daojiong Hequn fake hair factory occupies a two-story building amid dozens of others, on what had been village fields before the manufacturing boom of the past two decades. Its 50 workers share two toilets, sleep eight to a closet-sized room in bunk beds and are forbidden to use radios or watch television in their dorms in order to conserve electricity.

Yang Weng, a villager from outside Chongqing, has returned home jobless after failing to find decent factory work in Guangdong, a southern province. (Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

The plant needs 10 more workers, a company executive said. Production has dropped by one-fifth, and a major customer has been lost -- a Shenzhen factory that makes dolls. With raw material prices up as well, profits have plummeted from about $37,000 a month to about $7,000, the executive said.

But instead of raising wages, the executive said the company tries to lure workers into the plant with the promise of monthly pay as high as $100 if business is good, knowing they will only pay about half that. Most workers leave within a few weeks, the executive said, but the factory keeps replenishing its work force by tricking new arrivals.

Some factories use recruitment agencies that scour far-away terrain for workers. Yet even in areas where economic opportunities remain scarce, word is spreading that Guangdong is a place to avoid.

Last December, Yang Weng, 31, left her village near Chongqing, beneath bamboo-covered mountains that drop down to the Yangtze River, and headed for Guangdong to look for work. Her husband stayed behind to take care of their 8-year-old daughter.

She and her husband had made their living growing vegetables. Last year, the city government took their land for a real estate project, giving them a one-time payment of $2,000.

"I knew I would miss my daughter, but what can I do?" Yang said. "We have no land and we have to live."

She rode three buses and an all-night train, arriving in Dongguan two days later. She did a stint in an electronics factory, another at a printing plant. Both times, she quit after a few days, frightened by warnings from other workers that she would be paid far less than the $90 a month she was promised. She returned home in March and is now helping her mother grow rice and oranges.

"The factories all cheat you," she said. "Everyone there is a liar."

Special correspondent Jason Cai contributed to this report.

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