Giant Factories
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Giant Factories

The 2012 controversy over the working conditions in the Foxconn Technology complex in Zhengzhou, China, where Apple electronic devices were being made, brought worldwide attention to the gigantic factories built in East Asia over the previous two decades. The scale of these industrial colossuses staggers the mind. The Foxconn factory in Chengdu, which poured out iPads to meet a seemingly insatiable consumer appetite, employed 120,000 workers. Seventy thousand workers lived in company dormitories. The Foxconn Zhengzhou plant employed a similar number of workers, while the company’s two complexes in Shenzhen together had a workforce exceeding 400,000.1 The Huafang Group, a leading textile producer, had one factory complex with over 100 buildings and 30,000 employees.2 Yue Yuen/Pou Chen 6 Industrial Holdings, the world’s leading producer of athletic and casual footwear, had a chain of factory behemoths in Southern China, including one, in Dongguan, which employed 110,000 workers.3 Vietnam, too, had some very large footwear factories, including a plant belonging to a Yue Yuen/Pou Chen subsidiary where a reported 90,000 workers went on strike in 2011.4 [End Page 177] Newspaper, radio, television and theatrical depictions of these industrial complexes have generally focused on their low pay, dangerous conditions, and autocratic management, but their sheer size commands attention and wonder, too, like the three tons of pork and thirteen tons of rice used every day to feed workers at one Foxconn complex.5

The outsized factory has been a feature of industrial life for two centuries, an incandescent symbol of human ambition, achievement, and suffering. Journalists, novelists, social scientists, labour activists, political radicals, industrial engineers, investors, management theoreticians, photographers, filmmakers, and artists all have been drawn to these new things under the sun, grappling to understand their meaning and consequences. Often the giant factory has been associated with modernity, with rejecting old ways to create a new, more rational, and more bountiful world. But the meaning of modernity – as evident in visual imagery and reportage – has changed as the large factory as a distinct kind of physical structure and social organization migrated across space and time from England in the eighteenth century to the United States in the nineteenth century, the Soviet Union and its satellites in the twentieth century, and finally China and Vietnam in the twenty-first century. Over and over, the large factory has served as a measuring rod for attitudes toward work, consumption, and power, a physical embodiment of dreams and nightmares about the future.

As far back as the ancient world, there were episodic large assemblages of workers to make war or build structures, such as pyramids, roads, canals, and aqueducts. These were largely state-sponsored projects of limited (if sometimes long) duration. By contrast, until the nineteenth century, manufacturing generally took place on a far more modest scale, engaged in by craftsmen and their helpers working alone or in small groups. As late as 1850, on average manufacturing establishments in the United States employed fewer than eight workers.6 [End Page 178]

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Cromford Mill, Derbyshire, England, the first water-powered cotton spinning mill, built 1771-1785, as seen in 2009 after partial reconstruction.


Factories – contained enterprises, designed for repeated cycles of production, with large numbers of workers under the same roof – first appeared in England in the late eighteenth century to produce cotton yarn and textiles. The invention of water and later steam-powered equipment for spinning cotton and weaving cloth transformed the economic and physical organization of the industry. Whereas once one worker or a few operated hand-powered spinning or weaving equipment in a home or small structure, power equipment made it more efficient to bring together in one building a large number of men and women operating many spinning jennies or mules and later looms, what Karl Marx called “the conglomeration in one place of similar and simultaneously acting machines.… receiving their impulse simultaneously … from the pulsations of the common prime mover.”7

The factory system spread slowly; into the 1830s there were more handloom weavers in England than textile factory employees. But the factory quickly commanded...