A day in the life of a factory worker in China

Suntech's employees get $200 a month, but they get subsidized housing too.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
Factory workers put in long shifts at Suntech Power Holdings, but they do get time off.

The solar cell manufacturer, which has emerged as one of the fastest growing in the world, has its plant employees put in two twelve hour shifts on consecutive days and then get two days off.

The 2,500 factory workers make around $200 a month each on average. That's $2,400 a year. 70 percent of the factory employees are young women.

"Robots will double your production costs," said Steve Chan, vice president of business development.

While such wages would be atrocious in the U.S., you've got to look at the salary in relative terms, said Chan and others. New college graduates earn about $400 in China. The cost of living in China is far lower as well.

Government mandates also compel employers to kick in fringe benefits. Suntech, for instance, provides housing subsides, a free cafeteria and onsite medical.

CEOs and highly paid executives also make less than their U.S. counterparts. Until their companies go public, most founder/CEOs make around $70,000 or so. Even after they go public, executives usually only make around $200,000, which is a lot less than U.S. CEOs.

The payoff comes with the IPO. Suntech founder Zhengrong Shi is one of the richest individuals in the country, with an estimated net worth of over $2 billion.

You can chalk it up to diplomacy. The Chinese government initially owned approximately half of Suntech's stock and party official sat as Chairman. U.S. investment bankers warned the company that government ownership would kill their chances for an IPO. Ultimately, Shi had to buy out the government's share, said Steve Chan, vice president of business development. The stock went out in late 2005 at $15 a share on Nasdaq. Now it sells for over $33.

The government, Chan added, didn't do badly either. "They got 23 x returns on their investment," he said.