The true story of migrant workers at Dongfeng Auto

LU XUN is generally considered to be the greatest Chinese writer of the Twentieth Century.  Writing in the 1920s and '30s, a time of great turmoil and upheaval in China, Lu Xun gave a voice the dispossessed and the oppressed, and never shirked from exposing the ugliest aspects of Chinese society.  Eight decades later, Lu Xun's works still resonate today for many in China, especially those on the margins of society. 

Can Bian, is a migrant worker at Dongfeng Co, a major automotive manufacturer in the central province of Hubei, who believes that Lu Xun's writings, particularly The True Story of Ah Q and My Old Home, still have tremendous relevance for his life and those of his fellow migrant workers at the car plant.  In April 2007, Can Bian sought to emulate his hero by writing a story about The Actual Conditions of Migrant Workers at the Dongfeng Group. The story is a no-holds-barred expose of the discrimination suffered on a daily basis by migrant workers at the car plant and is a stinging indictment of the failure of the official trade union to address the problems of the workers it is supposed to represent.

Dongfeng Auto is 50/50 joint-venture between the state owned Dongfeng Group and Japanese automotive giant Honda.  Its main plant in the provincial capital, Wuhan, increased production capacity in February 2006 to 120,000 units a year, mainly the CR-V and the Civic for sale within China.

The source of Can's story is the Beijing Dajun Center for Economic Analysis and China Labour Bulletin cannot independently verify that Can Bian is who he claims to be.  However the writer clearly has a detailed inside knowledge of day-to-day life and work at Dongfeng Auto and many of the complaints he makes are reflected in the government's own research and policy documents such as the State Council's Some ideas on resolving the problems of migrant workers, issued in March, 2006.

There follows a translation into English of Can Bian's story.

The Actual Conditions of Migrant Workers at the Dongfeng Group

Can migrant labourers give a true account of their working and living conditions?

On 13 April 2007, the Workers' Daily newspaper, in conjunction with the Propaganda and Education Department of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and the Dongfeng Automotive Trade Union, launched a literary competition on the subject of "trade unions, factories and workers" (sangong). To encourage migrant workers to write about their life and work, the organisers offered a "Special Prize for Outstanding Migrant Worker's Literature". I have the honour of being a migrant worker at the Dongfeng Automobile Co, as well as a lover of literature. I have been at Dongfeng for ten years, and no one understands the working life of migrant workers at this company better than I do.

Unfortunately, if I stick to the brief of this competition and reflect the actual working life of migrant workers, my essay will be voted down by the judges. One of the organisers is the Dongfeng Trade Union. Would they be likely to allow an exposé of the ugliest aspects of their company to be published in the press?

The Dongfeng Group employs a large number of migrant workers. Perhaps the Workers' Daily could ask its co-organiser, the Dongfeng Trade Union, how many migrant workers have joined it and are represented by it. Over the last ten years or so, how many times has the union defended the rights of migrant workers? Speak truthfully now!

The Dongfeng Group is a big state-owned enterprise, although half the money currently invested in it comes from overseas. The group has actually built a small city, popularly known as "car city", to house its plant and workers. Let us look at the despicable treatment this enterprise, the second largest carmaker in China, has meted out to its migrant workers for more than a decade.

Workers in Chinese enterprises are currently divided into four groups: regular workers, temporary workers, migrant workers (nongmingong, literally "peasant workers") and labourers (laowugong, literally "labour service workers").

At Dongfeng, migrant workers have never been called migrant workers; they have always been called temporary workers or labourers. In the old days, the term migrant worker did not even exist, but these days all migrant workers who work at Dongfeng are supplied by a labour company (laowu gongsi, literary "labour service company"), so they are known as labourers. For years, labourers have performed the dirtiest and most backbreaking work for the least amount of money at the plant.

A worker's salary consists of the basic wage and a performance bonus. Regular workers also get an annual salary; labourers do not. Bonus payments are determined by grade. The workers and labourers are divided into 36 grades although they all work in the same plant and do the same work. There are regular workers, labourers and something called Dongfeng labourers. For example, at the same workstation, a regular worker is classified as grade 10, a Dongfeng labourer as grade 9 and a labourer as grade 8. Depending on the grade, the difference in payment for the same work can be considerable, sometimes as much as 400 yuan. A small team leader may be paid two to three times more than a labourer; in some branch companies the difference can be three to ten times. This unequal pay for equal work only exists because of our difference in status.

Even more maddening is the fact that shameless workshop and department managers who are charged with distributing salaries use all sorts of dubious methods to pay workers at the lower end of the pay scale even less than they are supposed to. Department managers can get quite abusive, saying things like, "We have the right to redistribute salaries and if you don't like it you can clear out." It gets worse. By the time the money is sent from the department to the workshop, another percentage is skimmed off, leaving hardly anything for the workers. In the factory I work in, I had a colleague who worked 25 shifts in one month, on average 11 hours a day. Once, he had to take a couple of days off because he was ill, and at the end of the month he took home a little more than 700 yuan. He had been docked 100 yuan a day, about one tenth of his entire salary. Even before this, company policy meant that two tenths of his salary had been deducted, and managers in his department had grabbed another two tenths. The fact is that a labourer gets only 60 per cent of a regular worker's salary for doing exactly the same job.

During the Spring Festival, the company hands out money. Dongfeng labourers get half the amount given to regular workers, and labourers get half again. If the figure resulting from this division is an odd number it is always rounded down to an even number. I once phoned one of our managers and questioned him about this practice. He immediately wanted to know who I was and what workshop I worked in. He asked me all sorts of intrusive and threatening questions, before finally saying, "This is factory welfare and you are not one of our regular factory workers. We give you as much as we see fit, which could just as well be nothing." After that, none of us asked about this again.

The current conditions of workers' lives: no collective dormitories, just rudely constructed rented rooms

The company does not provide labourers with dormitory accommodation; that is a special privilege reserved for regular workers. We migrant workers who have left our families far behind can only rent rudely built rooms. The rooms are tiny, about ten square metres, and they are cold in winter, hot in summer, and have nowhere to wash. There are, however, some married regular workers who have bought their own property and have managed to pull strings with factory managers to rent out their dorm rooms. Many labourers rent these rooms from regular workers.

Overtime at the company has never been called overtime; it is called "prolonged time" because there is no overtime pay. We work nine to eleven hours a day. The longest shifts I've worked here were from 8 am to midnight, with half an hour off for lunch, but most of the time I work from 8 am to 8.30 or 9 pm. Why is there no overtime pay? They tell us that overtime depends on output, which is factored into the monthly bonus. We are supposedly better off this way.

Every year the company gives regular workers who do hazardous work a medical check-up to prevent job-related illnesses. We migrant workers are outside the welfare system and get no such benefits. If we fall ill we have to take care of it ourselves. And of course we peasants always get the most hazardous work. Regular workers aren't willing to do work that is as backbreaking or harmful to their health.

The unfair treatment suffered by migrant workers

For a long time now, we migrant workers at Dongfeng have suffered from unequal treatment and discrimination. Migrant workers do the dirtiest and hardest work for the least money and are yelled at by their team leader to come and go, sweep the floor, and shift stuff around. Moreover, when regular workers are playing cards they often order us to go and buy them soft drinks and cigarettes. Because they are regular workers, they think they are superior and can treat us like servants, without even paying us. Who instilled this sense of superiority in them?

Writing up to this point, I'm finding it very difficult not to curse. But I'm a lover of literature and should not curse. I mustn't be like those worthless managers and regular workers.
We migrant workers are not afraid of dirty or hard work and are willing to work for very little, yet we still suffer this kind of discrimination. Many migrant workers who could not endure this discrimination left, but the company could not care less. This is precisely what they want: "leave if you want, there are plenty waiting to take your place." Three-legged toads [a traditional symbol of good luck and wealth] are hard to find, but two-legged humans are ten a penny.

Many migrant workers leave but even more stay. They don't have special job skills; they just want to support their family. They know what state-owned enterprises are like but don't really understand the private sector. To support their families, they will bear all sorts of humiliation and abuse, and work for years under difficult conditions, using just their own physical strength to contribute to China's automotive industry for no more than subsistence wages. In my eyes, there is greatness in these people, and I'm proud to say that I am one of them.

What is the Dongfeng Union doing?
Labour companies are legal human traffickers!

What has the Dongfeng Union been doing over the last decade or so? Has the union even admitted migrant workers? When I asked this question, I was told that it hadn't because migrant workers are not regular Dongfeng employees. They come under the "unified management" of the labour company and as such the Dongfeng Union has no business representing them.

The only reason we are more fortunate than those in the private sector is that the enterprise pays our insurance premium through the labour company. But that is also why we are less fortunate. The labour company is a "legal" trafficker in human beings. In exchange for our labour, every month they get a labour service fee and a management fee. We work to generate their profits but they do not fight for our interests. They collude with the enterprise to rob us of the earnings from our work. Before the personal income tax rate was adjusted a few years ago, we sometimes had to pay 50 yuan in personal income tax although were earning less than the minimum threshold of 800 yuan a month.

We don't have the right to sign a contract with the enterprise, only with the labour company. The labour company only signs short-term contracts of three months with us. It's all done on an A-4 sized booklet with the contract clauses at the front and a few sheets at the back on which to sign your name. You can sign your name a couple of times on a double-sided sheet of paper, but the small booklet you can sign seven or eight times, and each time you pay a five-yuan fee. It used to be three yuan but then they said that the price of paper had gone up, so the fee was increased. I reckoned this ordinary photocopy paper could not possibly cost ten yuan a sheet. When I asked about this, a manager told me that I was misinformed. The five yuan was a contract appraisal fee. I said that I didn't know what "appraising a contract" involved or who did the appraising. I had never met the appraiser. The manager said, "Whatever. It's just small change, so pay it."

This is like a walled city: those on the outside want to come in, and those already inside want to get out. To get in, labourers have to pay the labour company an introduction fee of 600 to 1,000 yuan, and even then many have to pay extra for gifts and entertainment for company managers before they can get a job. Why is this? Because there are a lot of people in China and migrant workers are ten a penny. Since the labour company has clambered up on the broad back of Dongfeng Automobile Co, it is able to sell its "services" like hot cakes. After all, Dongfeng Automobile Co. is a big, stable and profitable enterprise, and no private company can compare to it.

The enterprise may not have developed, but society has progressed and we migrant workers have learnt to vote with our feet. Last year, the enterprise paid its regular workers 1,000 yuan and just 200 yuan to the labourers. We later heard that office workers got 2,000 yuan, which made us really unhappy. Many colleagues left right then and another batch left after the end of the year, seriously disrupting production. Before long, a new group of labourers were recruited, but within a couple of days several of them left as well after those who had stayed dished the dirt on the enterprise. One labourer left halfway through his nightshift after colleagues told him what kind of company he was working for. I heard from colleagues that labourers at other Dongfeng companies had also walked out.

Could there be a shortage of migrant workers in China's state-owned enterprises? Haha! I must admit that when I heard this, I felt a tinge of schadenfreude. But what's the use. There really are too many peasants in China, and enterprises can pick and choose at will, without regard for the law or the value of migrant workers' labour power.

I often think about Ah Q, the spirit of Ah Q, and Lu Xun. At these times I realise why Lu Xun was such a great man. It is because the spirit of Ah Q that Lu Xun revealed is precisely that spirit of conformity and timidity that gives rise to today's social inequalities.  And Runtu was a truly prophetic symbol of today's migrant worker.  Lu Xun was a great man. Fifty years ago, he foresaw the lot of the peasants, and all these years later a migrant labourer and lover of literature like myself can still use his writings to shed light on a dark side of Chinese industry.

But what's the use of literature to a migrant labourer such as myself who can't even support his own family? The Workers' Daily can't seriously expect this sort of literary contest to clean up this system of unequal income distribution and the mindset of those corrupt company managers.

The Workers' Daily is a newspaper for workers. But workers work more than ten-hour shifts and have no time to read the paper. Even if they wanted to, the paper is kept in the team leaders' lounge, so workers have no access to it. I only learnt of this literary contest because I happened to pick up a copy of the paper from the toilet floor. Of the more than 200 migrant workers on my shop floor, nobody has ever read the Workers' Daily. I once suggested to some colleagues that they should read it because it had articles about issues of concern to workers. They said that there was nothing worth reading in it because it was all made up. But as a migrant labourer who loves literature, I've always enjoyed reading the Workers' Daily. I was once caught reading it at work on the sly and was fined 50 yuan, which was 1/20 of my monthly salary. That still didn't stop me from reading the Workers' Daily in the toilet. I would use the trade union section of the paper as toilet paper, because I never found anything worth reading in it. Why not?  The union treats me in the same way.

In the Selected Works of Jiang Zemin, there is an article entitled "Correctly Know the Function of Trade Unions" in which Comrade Jiang declares, "Our nation is a nation led by the working class. If we don't wholeheartedly depend on the working class who can we depend on? ... If trade unions cannot represent the interests of the workers' masses, what is the use of trade unions to the workers' masses?" Well said! These forceful and lofty words are worth remembering.

Why doesn't the Dongfeng Union admit migrant workers?

Why doesn't the Dongfeng Union admit migrant labourers? I've thought about this question a hundred times but I'm still puzzled by it. Walking on the street a few months ago, I came across a bill-board from the Municipal Federation of Trade Unions. The slogan went, "Let Migrant Labourers Join the Trade Union!” I stared at the poster for quite some time, and all sorts of feelings welled up inside me. Thinking that I had finally found a trade union to represent me, I was almost moved to tears. But the months passed and there was no sign of the trade union where I worked.

The company employs regular workers and labourers but only has one trade union which is simply too busy to look after so many workers. Every day, there are all sorts of documents to be studied, events to be organised, meetings to be held and propaganda work to be done. The union clearly has enough work on its hands dealing with regular workers' trivial disputes, and simply doesn't have the time to look after labourers. Should they set up a union just for labourers? If they did, they would really become an international laughing stock.

After I saw the bill-board that said "Let Migrant Labourers Join the Trade Union!" I was upset and continued to use the trade union section of the Workers' Daily as toilet paper, because it was big enough for that purpose and it certainly wasn't written for migrant workers like myself.

However, I became very excited once again when I read an article entitled "Lawsuit Changed Company's Hiring Practices", which was published by the Workers' Daily on 16 April. The paper reported that a migrant labourer had sued KFC over its hiring practices. Although the plaintiff lost the suit, KFC had to make a key concession: it agreed to stop hiring employees through a labour company and promised to sign work contracts directly with its employees.

The migrant labourer who sued KFC was called Xu Yange. It is a name I shall remember because to me he is a great man. My idol! His lawyer, a man by the name of Tong Lihua, also has greatness in him. Although Mr. Tong lost this case, I want to express my thanks to him for being a remarkable lawyer. The Workers' Daily article concluded by quoting a pseudo-expert who argued that this case had occurred because of shortcomings in current regulations on labour supply services and that it had set a precedent that would have a profound impact on relevant legislation in the future.

What? Legislation? China already has a Labour Law. Does it really need a special labour service law on top of that? How would this be any different from setting up a trade union for labourers? If there really was a labour service law, workers would be divided into different grades by law. That would leave us in the preposterous situation in which the regular workers' superiority complex would be sanctioned by law. We are all taught from childhood that work is glorious. Our political textbooks teach us that in a socialist society workers are paid according to the work they do, in ideology class we are told that workers are not divided into noble and base or high-ranking and low-ranking, our primary school textbooks still have an essay about Premier Zhou Enlai shaking hands with a street cleaner, and our school walls have posters singing the praises of night-soil carriers and oil workers honoured as "model workers". What grade of worker are they? Are they supposed to be covered by the Labour Law or by some other labour law besides the existing one?

They too are workers, so why shouldn't the Labour Law apply to them? As the expert (quoted by the Workers' Daily) would have it, the work contract would be a three-way contract, the enterprise would have no legal liability and the Labour Law would not apply. Two things are clear from this: First, the third party to the contract—the employment agency—is illegal.  This sort of hiring practice is illegitimate in itself. It should not exist. The enterprise ought to conclude long-term, short-term or temporary work contracts directly with its workers and labourers. Secondly, granted that this sort of hiring practice is very widespread, according to the expert's theory the fact that it exists makes it legitimate, which means that it ought to be enshrined in law. The presupposition is that there is a gap in the law and that the existing Labour Law does not apply, therefore a new law needs to be written. This bears out the principle of jurisprudence that the more laws there are, the more gaps in the law there will be. Even if a new law were promulgated, Chinese enterprises would quickly take advantage of loopholes in the law to devise another hiring method. Would that be the time to promulgate another law? While legal experts hold forth on a new law, their spittle flying in all directions, we lowly migrant labourers have long been scarred and battered by the reality on the ground.

Abolish the system of labour-supply companies! Abolish the system of unequal pay for equal work that corrodes the "harmonious society." Strike out against human traffickers draped in a mantle of legality!

The Worker's Daily explained that "labour supply companies first appeared in the United States to supply auxiliary labour, but there was an unlimited expansion of these companies in China in the 1970s." Chinese people picked up this foreign rubbish and took to it as if there were real value in it. Chinese enterprises came to rely on labour-supply companies to shift the risk and responsibility involved in hiring and using their labour force. Foreign companies later adopted the same method to exploit Chinese people, and every attempt to sue them has failed. Chinese people have really managed to slap themselves in the face.

Dongfeng Automobile Co. employs a large contingent of migrant labourers through a labour-supply company. For more than a decade, I have barely been able to catch my breath under the enormous pressure of this employment system.  We get unequal pay for equal work, work extraordinarily long hours, get no benefits, do the dirtiest and hardest work for the least money, the employee manual does not apply to us, we get no medical check-ups to prevent job-related illnesses, we are ordered about like dogs by the regular workers, and we have to pay a management fee, introduction fee and training fee to the labour company. Because we are labelled labourers we don't even have a place where we can have a reasonable conversation. I would rather be a migrant worker than a labourer. Yet every day, we generate huge profits for Dongfeng Automobile Co. Labourers throughout Dongfeng are very dissatisfied with this unfair system. How much money would Dongfeng Automobile Co. lose if we staged a one-hour strike? (Here's a request to the editors of Workers' Daily: Please ask your co-organisers, the Dongfeng Union, whether what I say is true. They surely have some detailed data and are better informed than I am. Do remember to tell them to be honest.)

Even the terms used in this employment system—"labour supply services", "labour company" and "labourer"—are redolent of the Chinese labourers, or coolies, who worked in Southeast Asia in the past. This so-called export of labour was in fact traffic in human beings. Today, the labour companies have cloaked themselves in a mantle of legality, but they are actually engaged in the shady business of human trafficking. They have never produced any value themselves, but have managed to convince industrial enterprises not to sign employment contracts directly with their workers. We labourers therefore have no choice but to go through a labour company that makes us pay an introduction fee and a monthly management fee. The enterprise and the labour company decide together how much money we take home every month.

This hiring system not only harms workers but also the industrial enterprises that rely on it. On the one hand, it has turned the "harmonious society" into an empty shell and has brought incalculable instability to Chinese society. On the other hand, by relying on this system, enterprises have drastically lowered their expansion costs and no longer give any thought to entrepreneurship, innovation, developing core technologies and increasing their core competitiveness. By blindly relying on this hiring system to lower their costs, enterprises end up becoming processing plants for other companies.

Being a migrant labourer with a middle school education, I lack the writing skills to adequately describe all the ways in which the system of labour supply services is harmful. Well-intentioned experts are welcome to look into this system, but if it's to explore how rational and reasonable it is they might just as well forget it.

A foreign economist said that he found it very strange, actually inconceivable, that the Chinese economy could continue to grow given that there is no support for the development of science and technology in China. A Chinese economist replied that there was nothing strange about this because China has a huge pool of cheap migrant labourers whose low wages have long been sustaining economic growth.

While Japan has exported much of its car-making industry overseas and is increasingly relying on robots that are the future of the industry, we are still working like beasts of burden in dirty and noisy workshops. Yet here in China, there are people who are proud to be raking huge profits thanks to the labour-supply company system.

Why hasn't this irrational and unfair employment system been overturned? Are we really going to enshrine it in law? Migrant labourer Xu Yange's lawsuit succeeded in changing KFC's employment system in China. It would be naïve of me to hope that this essay of mine will change the employment system of the entire Dongfeng Automobile Co. But I do hope that people of good intent will help me and my colleagues obtain equal pay for equal work.

KFC is intelligent enough to know the importance of corporate image. It has cut its ties to China's human traffickers and knows that it cannot rely on them if it wants to grow in China. What about our Chinese enterprises? What about our great Dongfeng Automobile Co.? Have you no shame? You've destroyed your image. Your corporate culture and brand image are built on an employment system that makes people's blood boil.

Change—do you have the courage to do it? Or are you reluctant to change a system that is rotten to the core because doing so could hurt your ability to profit at the expense of your workers?
I would also like to ask the great lawyer Tong Lihua: Would you help us migrant workers sue Dongfeng Automobile Co.? If we won, it would send shock waves throughout China greater than the ones caused by the KFC case. Think about it, you would be making history!

Having come to the end of my essay, I think again about Ah Q and Runtu. Lu Xun, the great Lu Xun, my spiritual guide.

By Can Bian, a migrant worker at Dongfeng Automobile Co.
April 23, 2007

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