Santa's Christmas workshop is real — and it looks nothing like you probably imagined.
Christened "China's Christmas Village," the city of Yiwu is home to 600 factories that together produce over 60% of all the world's Christmas decorations and accessories, according to China's state-run news agency. The complex was declared by the U.N. to be the "largest small commodity wholesale market in the world."
Yiwu is far from the idyllic workshop of Christmas lore. The "elves" that staff these factories are mainly migrant laborers who work 12 hours a day in gruelling conditions for between $300 and $500 a month, the Guardian reports.
Unknown Fields Division, a self-described "nomadic design research studio" dedicated to examining the unseen consequences of the global supply chains, travelled to Yiwu with photographer Toby Smith to raise the curtain on the real-life North Pole:
Oliver Wainwright describes what it's like working as Santa's helper, per the Guardian. Ironically, he notes, few of the workers at the factories of Yiwu really have an idea of what Christmas even is:
"Maybe it's like [Chinese] New Year for foreigners," says 19-year-old Wei, a worker who came to Yiwu from rural Guizhou province this year, speaking to Chinese news agency Sina. Together with his father, he works long days in the red-splattered lair, taking polystyrene snowflakes, dipping them in a bath of glue, then putting them in a powder-coating machine until they turn red – and making 5,000 of the things every day.
In the process, the two of them end up dusted from head to toe in fine crimson powder. His dad wears a Santa hat (not for the festive spirit, he says, but to stop his hair from turning red) and they both get through at least 10 face masks a day, trying not to breathe in the dust. It's a tiring job and they probably won't do it again next year: Once they've earned enough money for Wei to get married, they plan on returning home to Guizhou and hopefully never seeing a vat of red powder again.
The working conditions in Yiwu have alarmed some international observers. "From a health and safety perspective, the exposure to harmful chemicals and solvents is disturbing," Smith told Quartz. "I also witnessed manufacturing techniques with machines that could easily be criticized from a Western vantage point."
There is one bright side, however. Smith noted: "The social working environment, working hours and general atmosphere of the factory was actually more pleasant than I have experienced in other manufacturing sectors." Somehow we doubt it has anything to do with getting into the Christmas spirit.