China Labour E-Bulletin Issue No. 23 (2005-03-11)

In this Issue:

1. Editor's Note


Editor's Note

11 March 2005


International Women's Day falls on 8 March each year. From migrant workers to local office staff, from cases of extreme exploitation to subtle forms of unfair treatment, women workers in China face more than their fair share of difficulties.

In this special issue of CLB's E-Bulletin, we look at several cases of women working in different industries in Guangdong Province, where there is more foreign investment than in any other parts of China. Through these stories, we uncover some of the problems women workers are facing in this prosperous province.

The wife of a migrant worker dying of pneumoconiosis fights for fair compensation for her husband. Female white-collar workers find that their office jobs are not as enviable as they first appear. Women massage workers have to put money considerations ahead of their own health. The personal stories of these women highlight a range of commonly found dilemmas and workplace struggles in China today.

1) Migrant Worker with Deadly "Dust Lung" Disease, Wife Struggles to Survive

2) Mainland White-collar Women Workers Stressed out at Work, Despite Relatively High Income

3) Masseuses in China: Long Working Hours and Low Awareness of Occupational Health Risks


1) Migrant Worker with Deadly "Dust Lung" Disease, Wife Struggles to Survive

Chronic occupational illness and injury has become a common phenomenon in the prosperous cities of southern China. Since 2000, many cases have surfaced in several Hong Kong-invested jewellery factories in Guangdong Province. These workers find themselves living out their remaining days in the worst slums, trying to seek compensation and justice.

In most cases, the victims, who are in their 20s to 40s, were the family breadwinners before their lungs were contaminated by the deadly dust from cutting precious stones. So the destruction of their health devastates the whole family. China Labour Bulletin recently interviewed the wife of a migrant worker afflicted by silicosis. On top of caring for her dying husband, she worries about her children who remain in her home village, and she tries to fight for compensation. She shared her experience with CLB as follows:

My name is Tang Manzhen and my husband is Deng Wenping. We are both 34 years old. I came to Huizhou to work in January 1998, a few months after my husband had started work in the Stone-Cutting Section of the Perfect Gem & Pearl Manufacturing Company. Back home we were farmers, working day and night to make ends meet. We thought that factory work in Guangdong sounded promising, so we left our eight-year-old daughter and two-year-old son with their grandparents in a village in Sichuan, to come here.

I started working in the perforation (gem drilling) section of the same factory. My husband earned 1,000 Yuan a month and my wages were on a piece-rate basis. I worked from 7.30 am to 9.30 pm or even later, with one day off a month, for 900 Yuan a month.[1] Chinese New Year was the time we looked forward to most, when we could go home for a few days and see our children and parents. Our wages meant we could send our daughter to school and have a house built in our hometown, where we hoped to return one day. But in late 2000 everything went wrong.

After the factory's annual medical test, my husband was notified that he had contracted tuberculosis. We were suspicious because tuberculosis is infectious and if he had it, why hadn’t I caught it? So, together with five other colleagues, my husband went for an examination at another hospital.

It turned out that all of them were suffering from silicosis and my husband's condition was diagnosed as being at Stage II of the illness. On learning of this, the factory fired them all on 5 January 2001, just three days after they came out of hospital [2].

On the morning of 8 January 2001, I received notification from the factory that it was "inappropriate for me to work in this factory anymore" and the security guards forced me to pack and leave immediately. I am sure it had nothing to do with my performance. I had been working there for three years. How could they suddenly find me unsuitable?

I wanted to look for another job so that I could support my children and pay for my husband's medical treatment, but he was so sick that I could not leave him alone at home. I needed to cook for him, bathe him and take him to the clinic. Now he can’t even dress himself so I have to do everything for him.

My husband received 90,000 Yuan compensation from the factory, but our lives have been ruined [3]. We have spent all the compensation money and our own savings and even sold our house to pay for his medical treatment. Four years on, we are now heavily in debt, so we are currently trying to sue the company in court to get higher compensation.

His condition is now at Stage III, the last stage of this incurable illness. He now needs oxygen therapy once every two days to combat his breathing difficulties. We cannot afford to go to better hospitals, so we go to small clinics. But still, it costs 140 Yuan each time.

Since he contracted silicosis, I haven't had a good night's sleep. I am worried all the time. How long does he have left? How can his suffering be reduced? How are my children? What shall I do when he is gone? What if we lose the court case? How can we repay our debts? These thoughts keep me awake during the endless nights, accompanied by his coughing and murmuring.

Both my husband's parents passed away in 2001, less than half a year after learning of his illness. My children then moved to my parents' place. My parents are understanding and want to help me out, but sometimes my brother and sister-in-law, who also live there, complain. Well, they are probably right, they have their own children to look after and it is not their responsibility to take care of mine.

My children are now 14 and 8. The younger one has never been to school and the elder one had to quit because we couldn't afford her tuition fees. I don't want to cry in front of my husband because he suffers enough, but when I call my children, I cannot hold back my tears anymore. They always ask when they can return to school. Kids in the village laugh at them, saying that they have parents working in Guangdong but cannot send them to school. It breaks my heart when I hear those stories.

You know, I have not seen my children for more than three years. A return ticket to Sichuan costs 600 Yuan and I can't afford it. "How tall are my children? Have they put on weight? Are they naughty?" I always ask my friends when they return after Chinese New Year.

We are now living on the charity of good-hearted people. A fellow villager, who works in Huizhou, lets us have a spare room and I have borrowed money from friends and relatives to treat my husband [4]. But it is getting more difficult because they know he will not recover, so they probably will not be repaid. I feel extremely bad about this.

My husband is dying, but still I don't want to give up. All I wish now is that the factory will pay for his medical expenses and give us some compensation, so that he can live longer and my children can return to school. I cannot imagine what will happen to me when he dies. I am too old to find a job in Guangdong but I am worried that I will not be able to earn enough by farming to support my children.


[1] There are about 8.3 Yuan to the US dollar.

[2] Mr Deng was diagnosed with Silicosis Stage II, equivalent to Level 4 of Disability under China's Regulation on Work-related Injury Insurances. According to the Regulation, occupational illness victims, with Level 1 to Level 4, can choose to have a one-off compensation or continuous compensation. Mr Deng said he was forced to leave the factory under threat of physical attack from the factory's security guards. He made a complaint to the local labour department but was beaten up by the officials there. In April 2001, short of money for living and medical expenses, he had to accept the one-off compensation.

[3] The initial offer of compensation was 100,000 Yuan but Mr Deng said he has been required by the factory management to pay them 10% commission for handling the case. The handling fee was off the record.

[4] The place Mr & Mrs Deng live looks like an abandoned house from the outside. On the day of this interview, it was drizzling and her room was dark and damp. She has to gather wood for cooking and has no access to clean water in her home.

See related report: American Federation of Teachers Delegation Meets with Gravely Ill Workers in Mainland China


2) Mainland White-collar Women Workers Stressed out at Work, Despite Relatively High Income

The term "middle class" has cropped up frequently in mainland China's popular magazines in recent years. In 2004, a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that the middle class in China numbers 35.18 million, which is about 2.8 per cent of the total population [1]. A recent survey conducted by the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics defines "middle class" as being those whose annual household income for a family of three is between 60,000 Yuan and 500,000 Yuan. Reportedly, about 5.06 per cent of the population falls into this category, while the majority 91.7 per cent earns an annual household income of less than 50,000 Yuan [2].

"The proportion of middle class in China will expand from 5 percent today to 45 percent in 2020," says the report [3]. If this is accurate, more than half a billion people will enter the middle class over the next fifteen years. The official report's definition is solely economic, but can "middle class" also encompass other aspects of life, such as leisure time and quality of life?
"Well, life is tough," say a pair of cousins, Lillian and Vivian, both typical "middle class white-collar women" who live in Guangzhou and Shenzhen respectively. Born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, both of their fathers became successful businessmen after China's opening up of its economy to the outside world in early 1980s. They have never experienced any political turmoil or economic hardship. But still, when talking about life, they seem to have endless complaints to make. Are they just spoilt or is the reality not as bright as it is portrayed in the mainland Chinese media?

Lillian finds her life very stressful. Without a recognized bachelor degree, she says she has to work much harder than other colleagues who are degree holders. She earns 3,000 Yuan a month, a rather high income compared with people of the same qualification and therefore she stays in a job she does not enjoy much. "I want to be a teacher but prospects in the education field are not that great. My parents think telecommunications are better for me," says the 23-year-old obedient daughter, a programmer in a giant mobile phone services provider.

"I am attending evening classes and hope to achieve a degree somehow. My current job is very boring and dry but I don't think I can find anything better-paid elsewhere." In recent years the absence of proper higher education planning has meant that too many degree holders have entered the labour market, which strengthens employers' already omnipotent position and places workers in a worse situation as collective bargaining is not possible in China.

When asked if there are any other problem areas in their lives apart from work they both say "relationship and family." Lillian's boyfriend is from another city. "He is not a rural migrant worker but he has no resources in Guangzhou to help us build up anything." Knowing that her parents would prefer her to have a local boyfriend who could get a better job and buy a house, she has concealed the relationship from them for two years.

Vivian's parents accept her boyfriend, but she has to be careful for another reason. "My fiancé earns less than me and has parents to support. I have to think about his feelings but I don't want to give up the luxury of living in a nice apartment and going out in a cab."

"I am considered very lucky to have this job," says Vivian, who became a designer in a medium-scale garment company after she received her diploma in fashion design in Canada. She says that some of her friends who received the same diploma in China are earning half what she earns. Her selling point is her foreign qualification, a clear example of "the rich get richer." Yet Vivian soon found that there was a catch. "My boss usually shows up and gives me new tasks before my lunch hour and, even worse, at 6.30pm. I have to work those extra lunch hours and evenings unpaid." It is not unusual that she has to travel to Hong Kong for work at weekends, and at her own expense.

"I do have a labour contract stating I will receive 5,000 Yuan at the end of each month, but the truth is I only get 3,000 Yuan each month on time and the remaining 2,000 Yuan is given to me personally by the boss when she is in a good mood. I don't know what to do when she 'forgets' it. The company shuts down for three weeks during Chinese New Year as the migrant workers all go home and we then get only a quarter of 5,000 Yuan. "Sometimes I think I am complaining too much. In my company, the security guards and migrant workers work very long hours and earn less than 1,000 Yuan a month."


[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:


3) Masseuses in China: Long Working Hours and Low Awareness of Occupational Health Risks

As more and more Hong Kong people frequent the cities of the Pearl River Delta, buying flats there and going for weekends and holidays, a new area of employment has been created for migrant workers – the beauty and massage business. The female migrant workers, who come mostly from poor rural villages in inland provinces, consider themselves much better off as beauticians or masseuses than the factory workers.

According to the mainland news media, there are about 30,000 to 40,000 massage workers working in some 3,000 massage parlours in Shenzhen alone [1]. The massage workers are mostly women and come from all over China. Many of them suffer from swollen fingers and skin diseases, but neither they nor their employers tend to pay much attention to these widespread occupational health hazards.

Xiao Mei, 20, and Mei Lan, 18, who come from rural villages in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Hunan Province respectively [2], said many girls in their home villages are keen to find jobs in massage parlours in Guangdong rather than working in factories.

The girls are both working at a massage parlour in Zhengmutou Town, in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province. They told CLB that they felt lucky to have their present jobs, compared to those working in the factories where health problems and wage arrears are common.

"We can't say we are leading a very good life here, but we are much better off than factory workers. Working in the factory is so dirty. We'd rather serve clients in beauty centres and foot massage parlours. Also, sometimes we might get small tips."

It may be a better working environment than the factories, but how much better? What is the reality?

The girls work about 13 hours a day, between 10 AM and 1 AM, six days a week, in exchange for a monthly wage of about 600 Yuan. "I feel totally exhausted after work everyday. My fingers, my hands, and my back are so sore after serving about 10 clients each day," says Xiao Mei. Mei Lan says she needs to buy a lot of Chinese medical balm to soothe her sore and painful hands.

Asked if their employer offers them any medical insurance or social security, the girls looked surprised at the question and said they had never expected their boss would do that for them. "Of course it would be great if our boss provided us with these benefits, but nobody in the massage parlour has ever complained about not having them. We simply don't expect it," says Mei Lan.

Compared with the severe health and safety risks of working in chemical plants or coalmines in mainland China, the occupational health problem facing massage workers are relatively minor and so have attracted little public attention. The employers and even the masseuses themselves do not consider the problem worth addressing seriously.

Asked if any workers in the massage parlour had tried to get together with other masseuses to negotiate with their employer to fight for better occupational health protection, the girls again shrugged their shoulders and said: "Many masseuses just want to earn as much as they can and we often change employers and move to work for another parlour. Occupational health is not a major concern. After all, we are getting a more stable income than we would work in factories, and it is not so dirty."

But this may reflect a lack of information and awareness, on their part, of the kinds of health risks, such as skin disease, commonly posed by working in direct physical contact with customers and clients from diverse walks of life. For example, a 42-year-old foot massage parlour owner in Urumuqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said her fingertips had become swollen and deformed through serving her clients over the past eight years. [3] Another young female massage worker from Xi'an said many of her colleagues suffered chronic pain in their hands as a result of frequent physical exposure to Chinese medicines, and some had also caught skin diseases from their clients.

In addition to the potential health risks in the workplace, some female massage workers said they felt so embarrassed about working in massage parlours that they felt unable to tell other people, including their parents, about their jobs for fear of being looked down upon and sometimes even suspected of working in prostitution.

A 23-year-old university student, Xiaona, from Xi'an, who works as a foot massage worker in a massage parlour at night, said she was ashamed to tell her parents about her job. "I can't imagine how disappointed they might be if I told them that I’m touching different people's feet every night," she said. The young woman said she had to keep working in this job because she desperately needed money to finance her studies. Foot massage was seldom considered a respectable occupation, she noted, and many people had the impression that massage parlours were "pornographic" venues. She added that some customers asked for "other services," and she and her fellow workers sometimes encountered sexual harassment from drunken clients. [4]

However, Ah Ling, a university graduate from Hunan Province who first went to work as a masseuse in Guangzhou and then Kaiping after finishing her college studies, said she would continue her work as a massage worker despite strong opposition from her family, and even though her boyfriend had left her because of her job. "There is still a lot of misunderstanding about the massage business in our society. Some people view it as being a part of the sex industry, and many people look askance at me for doing this job." [5]


[1] According to a report published by the Shanghai Xinwen Wanbao (Evening News) on 17 September 2003, female massage workers are generally unaware of the health risks in their workplace. Although many of them have to seek medical treatment for their swollen hands and skin diseases, they very rarely see it as being their employer's responsibility to provide them with any medical insurance. (See:

[2] All the women's names used in this article are pseudonyms.

[3] The foot-massage parlour owner spent eight years working in another foot massage parlour before setting up her own business with her husband, who was also a foot massage worker, last year. Before joining the massage business, they were both retrenched workers (xiagang gongren) from a state-owned tire making factory in Urumuqi. (See:

[4] See:

[5] Jiangmen Daily, 9 June 2004; see:

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