MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
For the past two days, NPR's Frank Langfitt has chronicled the lives of North Carolina furniture workers who lost their jobs to China. Well, today he takes us to China to meet some of the people who got those jobs. It's a journey that spans two years with many twists and turns.
Frank Langfitt begins in North Carolina with one of the laid-off workers.
FRANK LANGFITT: Bill Curtis watched his job slip away piece by piece. He cut cloth for sofas at Broyhill Furniture. Over time, he noticed more cloth arriving at his factory from overseas. Then, Broyhill began slashing his hours.
BILL CURTIS: Work just started to dwindle. The more we saw leave, the more containers we saw coming in, and we knew that's where our jobs went.
LANGFITT: And where were the containers coming from?
LANGFITT: Do you have any idea what someone who does your job in China makes an hour?
CURTIS: I have no idea. I've seen some pictures of furniture factories over there and it's the closest thing I can think of to slave labor, from what I've seen.
LANGFITT: Slave labor, I wondered. Curtis' furniture job was among more than 300,000 that disappeared from the United States this decade. A couple of years ago, I went looking for some of those jobs in south China. I found them in Dalingshan.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
LANGFITT: Furniture factories sprawl across the city. One of the biggest is called Lacquer Craft. One evening in January 2008, I waited outside the factory's back gate.
Right now, it's 5:30, it's the dinnertime break, and hundreds and hundreds of workers are pouring out. They're wearing the same blue jackets and they're riding bikes and walking, going to stop off and get something to eat at restaurants.
Inside, they build furniture for most of the major American brands, including Broyhill - Bill Curtis' old employer in North Carolina.
One of the Chinese workers I met was Zhao Xia. She prepares furniture for painting. Bill Curtis made more than $15 an hour. Zhao earns less than 70 cents an hour. But Zhao doesn't consider herself a slave. She says she's fortunate. Before working in the factory, she farmed a tiny plot of land in southwest China's Sichuan province.
ZHAO XIA: (Through Translator) We planted rice paddies, wheat and corn. We ate what we planted. We never made any money off it.
LANGFITT: I chatted with Zhao in the apartment she shares with her husband. They sleep on a box spring next to a DVD player and a small TV. Squalid by American standards, the conditions are a step up from Sichuan.
XIA: (Through Translator) In a factory, you don't have to work in the sun, that's the best thing. I prefer working here. At least I get paid. At home, nobody paid me.
LANGFITT: Zhao is among 4,000 workers at Lacquer Craft. An executive there, Hawk Chiu, showed me around one afternoon in a golf cart. We came upon a stack of lumber that stood three stories high. I asked what kind of wood it was.
HAWK CHIU: Baiyun. Baiyun mu.
LANGFITT: Baiyun mu.
LANGFITT: White poplar?
CHIU: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, poplar. (Through Translator) That's the majority of our wood. It's the strongest and it comes from around the American-Canadian border.
LANGFITT: That's right. The company imports wood from North America, cuts it into furniture and then ships it back across the Pacific.
CHIU: (Through Translator) There are a lot of exports to America, but some containers come back empty. So, the price to ship things back in them is relatively cheap.
LANGFITT: On my visit two years ago, South China was suffering from a surprise labor shortage. Instead of begging for jobs that they once did, furniture workers could pick and choose. Workers like Chen Hong. He's 24 years old and makes $330 a month.
Chen bragged he could command that wage anywhere.
CHEN HONG: (Through Translator) If we go out looking for work, we can certainly find jobs like this and get them at the same salary. We have a lot of friends asking us if we want to work in other factories.
LANGFITT: But all that was about to change. Back in America, housing crisis were falling, so were furniture sales.
Becky Song was a manager at Creation Furniture, a small company in Dalingshan. When I met her in January of 2008, Creation had already closed two factories. Song warned of worse to come.
BECKY SONG: (Through Translator) If there is a recession in the United States, of course, Americans' purchasing power will decline and there'll be fewer orders. Factories won't be able to survive, and they'll have to lay off people. Probably many factories will have to close.
(SOUNDBITE OF STOCK REPORTS)
Unidentified Man #1: Stock markets murdered today...
Unidentified Woman: The track show that U.S. foreclosure finally hit a record 1.5 million in the first half...
Unidentified Man #2: This is a panic and this is fear run amok.
LANGFITT: Becky Song's worst fears came true. The housing boom that fueled Chinese furniture factories collapsed and Americans stopped buying.
Last month, I returned to Dalingshan to gauge the damage.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)
LANGFITT: I'm back out in front of Creation Furniture. The place is abandoned. There's a metal security gate across the driveway. The front door of the office is strewn with an old mattress, a bunch of broken desks and dead plants. The only person here is a security guard. I asked him what happened.
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: He said Creation Furniture went bankrupt late last year.
I also went back to Lacquer Craft, the firm that makes furniture for Broyhill and other North Carolina companies. I caught up with Hawk Chiu, the executive there. He told me that in Dalingshan alone, more than 100 plants had shut down. Another factory manager said up to 400,000 workers had lost their jobs in the region and returned home to the provinces.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LANGFITT: Zou Zuoxin is one of the survivors. I met him one evening in the city central square. Factory workers and locals blow off steam here, dancing each night amid the palm trees. Zou said his factory cut hours until half its workers left.
ZOU ZUOXIN: (Through Translator) They never say directly we want to fire you. They would just tell you, you can still work here, but we have very few orders and very little work. Many people can't bear it, then they would just quit.
LANGFITT: Zou is in his early 50s. He says at his age, unemployment is just a matter of time.
ZUOXIN: (Through Translator) I'll lose my job sooner or later. It's not possible to have a career here. You can't have a job for life. The boss can just fire you when they don't need you.
LANGFITT: Hawk Chiu of Lacquer Craft says he learned a powerful lesson from the recession: Don't depend on the American consumer. Chiu is now focusing more on the Chinese market, but he says that will take time to develop.
CHIU: (Through Translator) Chinese people have a bad habit. They're comparatively frugal. They can use one piece of furniture for 10 or 20 years. Americans are much more wasteful. We prefer the way Americans consume.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LANGFITT: In the meantime, Chiu says his factories and others in Dalingshan will survive. Things are getting better. In recent months, orders from the U.S. have been picking up and, once again, Chiu and his factory are looking to hire.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.