Wedged between a smelly dump site and a busy port where ships sound their horns 24 hours a day is the workers’ dormitory of the Shenzhen East bus company. This has been home to 19-year-old Natalie (pseudonym) since she moved here from her hometown in Henan a year and a half ago.
Natalie shares her dorm room with three other women, all working as conductors on one of the company’s 200 bus routes that criss-cross the city. “You are lucky to be here at night,” she said. “The balcony faces west, so the room becomes a steamer in the afternoon with us as the buns!”
In addition to putting up with her cramped and stuffy dormitory, Natalie has to endure a demanding and tedious 16-hour shift on one of the city’s longest bus routes. Two round trips totals some 320 kilometres. However, this daily grind has done nothing to dampen her wanderlust: “I love travelling; just not on my bus! I have been to almost all the tourist attractions in Guangdong and Hong Kong” she said. “I wish I could travel around the world one day.”
Natalie’s enthusiasm and optimism also extends to worker activism. She played a key role in the strikes and protests by around 2,000 bus company employees in mid-April in which workers demanded a more transparent wage calculation system, overtime payments in arrears, fewer working days, and the abolition of a penalty scheme that forced drivers to pay for any vehicle damage.
“I am younger than most of my colleagues and more familiar with smartphones and social media,” she explained as she played with her new iPhone 5s. “My colleagues send pictures and videos clips about the strikes and demonstrations to me and I am spreading the news on social media.”
“The worst thing that can happen is that I get fired,” she said. “I don’t want to be silent; I want to do the right thing.”
Shenzhen bus stop. Photo by Peng Key available at flickr.com under a creative commons licence.
I don’t know what ‘the China dream’ that they talk about on TV really means. But there is one thing that I am sure of is what I have seen during past days is definitely not a good dream. The police were very violent and pushed us around. One of my colleagues only avoided being thrown into the police truck by claiming she was pregnant.
Even after being dragged out of her dorm by the company staff and forced to get back to work on the morning of 21 April, Natalie was still determined to carry on: “The strike has ended for now but none of our grievances have been addressed and the anger is still simmering.”