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Victoria Moore / UK Daily Mail | April 5, 2007

They stand in serried ranks, four abreast, identically dressed in pristine blue uniforms. The long line stretches back like a column of soldiers on a parade ground. But this is not a military regiment, this is an industrial army - part of the huge workforce that powers the booming Chinese economy.

For the 1,600 employees of the Broad Ltd air-conditioning factory in Changsha, every day begins in this regimental fashion as they prepare for the morning roll call.

Once names have been checked, their voices lift together, echoing around the machinery in the vast warehouse as they sing the company's anthem: "I love the summer and I'm full of energy. I love our customers and I'm making them richer. I love China it's getting stronger and wealthier by the day."

The sense of military discipline is instilled in the workers from the moment they join the company when they are expected to attend a seven-day boot camp. A retired army sergeant oversees a punishing regime of exercise and six-mile runs to build strength and stamina.

When not on the production line, they live in a compound protected from the outside world by gates and guards and sleep in company dormitories with bunks stacked three tiers high.

The accommodation blocks are emblazoned with morale-boosting slogans such as "Perfect Ourselves", and all the food they consume is grown on-site. They finish work at 8pm after at least a 12-hour day at their machines, producing air-conditioning units for the West.

Chinese companies are notoriously secretive about the conditions of their workforces, but holidays are meagre: often just two weeks in the year, during which workers travel thousands of miles to see their families from which they are separated while working.

The company won't say how much they pay their employees, but this is a country where the average worker earns just 50p an hour.

The spartan lifestyle of these employees is somewhat different to that of the Broad Ltd's owner, 46-year-old tycoon Zhang Yue.

One of the richest men in China, and the first to own a private Cessna jet (he now has five, plus a private helicopter), he cruises round in a red Hummer, black Rolls-Royce or yellow Ferrari, and is worth $304 million (about £154m) according to Forbes magazine.

But even with their super-controlled existence, employees at Broad Ltd in Changsha, 550 miles south-west of Shanghai, are, it seems, among the lucky ones. Working conditions in many Chinese factories are horrific.

Each year, 136,000 people - the equivalent of a town the size of Stockport - are killed in China in industrial accidents.

Eager to escape poverty, workers sign on to the payrolls of large companies and move into the huge compounds that resemble work camps, where they sleep in dormitories.

Some aim to give over three or four years of their lives to hard labour, then return home to set up a small business or buy a family house. But they can end up being horribly exploited.

In one case, a worker was found to be putting in 50 unpaid hours of overtime every week, and slaved for a whole year without a day off.

Strict discipline and hard toil are the watchwords in these factories, that churn out a quarter of the world's refrigerators, over half its cameras, six out of ten bicycles, half of all imported toys and 70 per cent of vehicles made every year. And 14-hour shifts and relentless overtime are normal.

Drawn by the low costs of producing goods in China, more and more companies are relocating their factories to the Far East where labour is plentiful - and very, very cheap.

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