Saturday, November 26

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A personal glimpse of the factory laborers in Thailand

The woman does not look at me as I approach her. She keeps her head down, concentrating intently on her work. I stand directly next to her and take out my camera to capture what she is doing. I'm sure she sees the flash, but she shows no reaction.

Her focus is so intense that she seems barely aware of her surroundings, much less of me. With the short, loud hiss of the pressing machine, she fits an aluminum part into its plastic shell. She returns to consciousness, but for only an instant – long enough to gather quickly two more pieces, not long enough to notice me standing there in amazement.


Hundreds of workers are spaced evenly along the short conveyor belts that neatly line the floor of this steaming hot factory – all female, all dressed in clean, uniform blue, all assembling curling irons, hairsetters, lighted vanity mirrors, etc. We walk around them with cat feet, as if we were in Firestone Library, trying not to disturb anyone's work.

But we're not in the library, and this isn't Princeton. This is Bangkok, Thailand – 10,000 miles away, 180 degrees around the earth, 11 degrees north of the equator. The distance has strangely transformed my companions and me from Princeton students to entrepreneurial engineers. We tour the factory in jackets and ties well aware that the small vacuum cleaners we've designed for class and brought with us could someday be manufactured here for sale around the world.

As in the library, most people are too absorbed in their work to converse. This level of concentration is astounding. Their work is not intellectual or stimulating; it resembles in no way a physics problem set or a paper on French literature. It is as mindless and repetitious as anything I have ever seen, more so than anything I have ever done.

Not only that, but this factory is at least 100 degrees, remote fans barely move the heavy air at all, and everyone is wearing long pants. After 15 minutes we are hurting for a strong blast of air conditioning.

This factory is not a sweatshop – no children are working, and the hours are not unreasonable – but I wonder whether I could endure the the heat or the repetitious work here for even one hour.

The reason that global corporations choose to manufacture in Thailand is no secret. A Third World standard of living leads to ultra-cheap labor costs. The best paid workers in this Bangkok factory make all of $25 per week. I can picture the rotund British businessman in Hong Kong explaining to us the reason the labor force in places like Thailand and China is valued: "They work 10 or 12 hours per day, and they don't complain."


The businessmen keep their factories running here as long as the labor remains cheap. If not, they move elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The company that owns this Bangkok factory recently closed a facility in Taiwan because labor costs had crept up above a mere 5 percent of product value.

These Thai workers, assembling products for Conair and Revlon, are among the cheapest labor in the world. This is precisely what makes the high quality of their work so impressive. The Quality Control Manager, an engineer who speaks good English, tells me the most important factor affecting quality is the state of mind of the workers.

These workers must let nothing – neither their boring work, their uncomfortable environment, nor their poor standard of living – affect their state of mind. In fact, this kind of fortitude seems to be a universal quality of the Thai people. As much as they charm you with their warmth, they also impress you with their grittiness.

Inch along the scorchingly hot roads of Bangkok in the world's most frustrating traffic, and you will see scores of half-finished buildings blazing in the subtropical sun. They are evidence that the Thai currency recently lost 44 percent of its value due in part to rampant speculation in real estate. Nearly every Thai company that does business in the domestic money is posting astronomical losses and announcing layoffs. Millions of people have lost their savings. However, these buildings seem to be the only evidence of the baht's fall.

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Despite economic crisis, Thailand is in no danger of losing its reputation as the Land of Smiles. Poverty is widespread, but there is no panic. The crime rate remains trivial. This is in contrast with places like Mexico, where a relatively small drop in the value of the peso has led to violent crimes against American businessmen and a murder rate of three per day.

Through it all, the Thai people keep smiling. They will steal your heart, but not your valuables.