My first post in this three part series focused on a post entitled The 7 Major Risks You Run With Your China Manufacturers, by China manufacturing expert Renaud Anjouran. In that post, Renaud outlined the business risks foreign companies face when having Chinese factories manufacture their products. I noted how Renaud’s list nicely accords with what our China lawyers tell our clients who retain my law firm to draft their Chinese manufacturing contracts. See China Manufacturing Agreements: Binding Contract or Contract Terms. I noted how our manufacturing clients usually want to focus on a) intellectual property protection/prevention of counterfeiting, ownership of molds and tooling and after sales warranty service. In other words, the sorts of things legal agreements are really good at resolving. But oftentimes, core business issues like price, quantity, delivery date, quality and resolution of quality issues, subcontracting and shipping are of at least equal importance.
My second post focused on the first four items on Renaud’s China product outsourcing list. In this, my last post in this three-part series on China manufacturing, I focus on the last three items from Renaud’s list.
Risk Five: Subcontracting. Subcontracting of production presents a number of risks often not clearly understood by foreign buyers. Renaud identifies the first and most common risk. The foreign buyer goes to substantial effort to verify that the Chinese factory it has chosen is capable of meeting its quality standards. If the factory then subcontracts the foreign buyer’s product manufacturing to another factory, all of the buyer’s verification work becomes meaningless. This then leads to other issues: How will inspections take place? How will quality control standards be enforced? How will worker safety or worker age rules be enforced? How will anti-bribery and related rules be enforced? Working to the next level, manufacturing by a third party where there is no contractual relationship means that confidential information agreements are automatically breached, and this is a primary way intellectual property gets lost in China. Finally, molds and tooling are often moved to the subcontractor, resulting in loss of control and the inability to retrieve these items when required.
There are three reasons Chinese factories typically subcontract. First, the “factory” is a front for a trading company that actually does no actual manufacturing on its own. This type of trading company will subcontract all of the manufacturing and will limit its involvement to supervising (usually very poorly) the manufacturing process. Second, the factory may be capable of doing the basic manufacturing process, but it requires subcontracting assistance on key elements of the production process. For example, it is normal for Chinese factories to subcontract mold making and electroplating of key components. Finally, the factory may decide that the foreign buyer’s purchases are too small to justify the effort of setting up production and it will subcontract to a factory with the time and the interest. Such a factory is almost guaranteed to be of lower quality, leading to the problems Renaud describes in his post.
Since subcontracting is always an issue when manufacturing in China, it is necessary to confront the issue directly in a formal agreement. The standard approach is to provide that subcontracting is prohibited without notice to and consent by the foreign buyer. The foreign buyer should condition its consent on inspecting the subcontractor and getting the subcontractor to execute a separate manufacturing contract with the same key terms as the foreign buyer has with its original manufacturer.
Though this approach is best, many Chinese factories insist on an absolute right to subcontract. In that situation, if the foreign buyer agrees, then the normal contract provision is to require (a) the Chinese factory at least identify its subcontractor(s) (b) the subcontractor grant the foreign buyer access to its premises for inspection and c) the Chinese factory agree to be directly liable for any violations committed by the subcontractor. Some Chinese factories will not agree to these conditions. When that happens, our China lawyers recommend the foreign buyer refuse to purchase its products from that factory.
Renaud identifies a more difficult problem: undisclosed subcontracting. This situation is unfortunately quite common. It arises most often during the busy season when a factory simply cannot keep up with the orders it has accepted. The best way to prevent this from taking place, the foreign buyer must regularly inspect the factory operations to ensure that the factory is really doing the work on the premises. Since the high season is the most likely time subcontracting will occur, this is the time when appropriate, unannounced inspections should occur. It is also crucial to enter into a formal agreement that prohibits undisclosed subcontracting as described above.
Way back in 2009, in The Six (Not Five) Keys To China Quality, we wrote about the tremendous value of putting a no-subcontracting provision in your China manufacturing agreements:
We typically put a provision in our OEM agreements (which we nearly always do in Chinese for better enforcement in China against the manufacturer) mandating that the Chinese manufacturer cannot subcontract out the manufacturing. We have been doing this for years and, as far as we know, no manufacturer has ever violated this provision. I know many of you are dubious of this record, but hear me out. Let’s say the Chinese manufacturer has 30 customers for whom it manufacturers product. Let’s say only four of those customers have a no subcontracting provision (my guess is this number is more like to be two, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with four here). The China OEM manufacturer gets really busy and has to subcontract out some of its manufacturing. It can subcontract out the product manufacturing of any of its 30 customers, so why wouldn’t it choose to subcontract out the product for the 26 customers who have no contract provision prohibiting subcontracting? I call this the bike lock theory of Chinese law because the no-subcontract provision operates like a good bike lock. The thief can still steal your bike, but why would he when there are so many easier targets out there?
In our experience, these no-subcontracting provisions work shockingly well.
Risk Six: Failure to Deal with Defective Product. The problem of defective products raises several issues. First, it is critical to identify a factory that will attain and maintain a reasonable defect rate. If the defect rate during production is over an “epidemic percentage” level, it is almost certain success will not be achieved. As Renaud illustrates in his post, the defects in Chinese factories are often at the cosmetic level. The base product is acceptable, but the finish is defective or scratched; fingerprints show up on glass in an enclosed case; greasy footprints are found on well sewn, elegant handbags.
There are two issues relating to dealing with such defects. The first is how to locate the defect. It is best to locate the defect during the production process. Second best is to locate the defect before shipping. Third best is to locate the defect after your receipt of the product. The worst case is to learn of the defect after delivery to the down stream customer.
As Renaud notes, once defects are found, the parties must have in place a formal plan that clearly deals with what will be done with the defective product. It is critical not to allow the defective product to enter into the retail market. Many Chinese factories will sell defective product “out the back door.” When this product gets into the market, the damage to your reputation can be substantial.
But what should be done with defective product? We usually provide that the defective product must be destroyed. However, this is not always the best alternative. In some cases, the defective product can be repaired or otherwise reworked. This is a common approach for complex and expensive cast metal parts for large equipment. In other cases, the defective product can be disassembled so that valuable components, such as precious metals, can be recovered.
Once you resolve how to handle defective products you receive from your China factory, your next issue is how to get reimbursed for the defects. The Chinese side will usually propose that the value of the defective product be applied as a credit against your future purchases. This is a bad system because the foreign buyer can only obtain credit if it makes another purchase. This forces the buyer into a relationship with a factory that makes defective product. Even worse, the amount paid to the factory is going down for each new purchase, which means the factory has even less incentive to do a good job.
The practical solution is for you to inspect your product before making any payments for its manufacture and reducing the invoice price to account for any short delivery resulting from removal of defective product from any given shipment. If the defect level reaches an epidemic failure rate (this rate must be determined on a product by product basis), your manufacturing contract should provide for you to be able to impose additional penalties. Foreign buyers that delay dealing with quality issues until after they have made full payment for their product are virtually never able to successfully resolve their China product defect issues.
The above discussion shows that a detailed, formal system for dealing with quality control and handling of defects is required and the only way to do this is with a formal, written manufacturing agreement. The common one line statement that the Chinese factory will warrant the quality of its products will never work. Manufacturing in China will ALWAYS result in defects. A workable plan for dealing with those defects is therefore not optional. It is required.
Renaud’s post raises an even more important issue. In some cases, the defect level from the factory will be high and will remain high. In that situation, where a defect rate is over 20%, it is normally impossible to develop a workable solution with the factory. The solution here is to monitor the process from the very beginning. In China, factories do not do better work over time. Their performance almost always only gets worse over time. As soon as an excessive defect rate is identified, you should take immediate action. Usually that immediate action means cutting your losses and moving to a new factory. A good manufacturing agreement will make this transition as easy as possible.
Risk 7. Logistics Cost Increases Due to Factory Error. As Renaud notes, you need to beware of increased shipping costs due to your factory making an error in the size of container required to ship your product. This issue arises from a common mistake make by foreign buyers. Inexperienced foreign buyers often do not understand that in international transactions, “logistics” is an integral factor for success. Shipping costs, shipping timing, method of shipment (air/ground/ocean), port of delivery and a host of other factors can have substantially impact the marketability/pricing of your product.
This then leads to the standard mistake. The foreign buyer looks for the lowest China Price. So the China manufacturer provides a product price that does not include the shipping cost: free carrier or the (erroneous) FOB price. Under these terms, it is the foreign buyer’s responsibility to make arrangements for shipping. The illusory concept is that the foreign buyer will then negotiate the lowest shipping rate, making for an even higher profit.
In fact, however, foreign buyers are normally unable to effectively manage shipping in China. So even though they specify free carrier terms, they in fact end up needing to rely on their Chinese factory to make all the arrangements for shipping. But under this scenario, the foreign buyer has taken on all liability for mistakes and yet it has no effective control to prevent those mistakes. This then is a perfect setting for the kind of disaster that Renaud describes.
From a legal perspective, resolution of this problem is simple. The foreign buyer’s contract with its China factory should reverse impose all of the responsibility and liability for shipping on the China factory. This is done with a manufacturing contract that provides for the product price to include shipping fees. The standard CIF (cost insurance freight) shipping term will achieve this goal. Use of CIF terms does not mean that your China factory will not make mistakes, but it does mean that your factory (not you) will be liable for those mistakes. Your China manufacturing agreement should also include a provision that requires your factory ship by air freight if delivery of your product will be delayed beyond a certain number of days. The only way to ensure that your China factory treats your key business issues as important is for your manufacturing agreement to impose an immediate penalty on your factory that does not require a cross border lawsuit to enforce.