Chinese university students investigate life on the factory floor

21 July 2010
During this year’s summer break, three students went “undercover” as migrant workers at a small shoe factory in Dongguan’s Houjie township. Their report, widely circulated in various forms on the Internet in China, details the pay and conditions of employees, the attitude of migrant workers towards employer abuses and their awareness of the law. It shows how the students tried to “raise the consciousness” of the young migrant workers at the factory and their frustration at their lack of success. The report also looks at the conditions at larger factories in the Pearl River Delta that pay more but also demand more from workers, and discusses the options available now to the younger generation of migrant workers, compared with their parents.

The essay reveals as much about the attitudes and values of young socially concerned urban intellectuals as it does about the subjects of their report, and as such provides insights into the 90s generation at either end of the social scale.

China Labour Bulletin has translated and edited Random Thoughts on Factory Life below. The original Chinese language report can be read here.

Random Thoughts on Factory Life

Experiences as a migrant worker

After two days of preparation, the three of us arrived on the 23rd at the Chiling industrial district in Houjie township, Dongguan. We spent one afternoon wandering about, but could not find any work that suited us, either because the pay was too low or because the factory did not want people without experience. One factory was not too bad. The wages were quite high, and they were recruiting, but it was a large factory, and you had to go through a lot of procedures to get in — two rounds of testing, a physical examination, and then you had to buy your own work gear. It was a lot of bother, and moreover you ended up spending over 100 yuan of your money. In the end, we decided to try a few smaller factories where it would be easier to hide our lack of experience or bluff our way through.

Early on the second day, we went to a shoe factory to apply for jobs. During the interview, my heart was pounding for fear of being found out, but the whole thing went surprisingly smoothly. Later, when we left the factory, we discovered our recruiter was herself a new hire. She had never worked in a shoe factory before, and when we told her our story, she had no idea that we were hiding something. We then we went to the department manager’s office to arrange a second test. Originally, we were supposed to pass two tests, but because the production lines were short-staffed, this second one was skipped. So we somehow cleared all these hurdles, got a “pass,” and joined the Zhonghua shoe factory. It occupied a very small plot of land. There were two buildings, one of which housed a staff dormitory and canteen, while the other comprised a workshop and warehouse. It had over 200 employees.

In the morning, we had just one test, and in the afternoon we handed over two photographs and our IDs, and filled out the contract as instructed (there was only one original, kept by the company). Then we were allotted our sleeping quarters. And so everything was going fine. We were told that we could start working as regular employees next day. We formally began working on the 25th. No specialist training was necessary; you only had to learn to do as you were shown.

The shift was 12 hours long nearly every day. Once you started, you hardly dared to think about the drudgery, but after you got into it, you found that you simply did not have time to let your mind wander. You were a machine. You just worked, and your brain did not need to be engaged at all, you just needed to carry out the same action repeatedly. That was all that was required.

When we started at the factory, we were surrounded by strangers’ faces, and everybody was very cool towards us. Nobody struck up a conversation, and when we asked questions, answers were kept as short as possible. It was as if they feared revealing some kind of secret if they talked too much. In the dormitory I only knew the guy who had come with me. Worse, the other people were all workers in a different section, and their time off was different to ours. They came off their shift ten minutes earlier than us each day, and all went off together to play computer games, and so we hardly ever saw them. And when they came back, all they talked about was computer games, and we could not find any common topics. There was only one approachable person, an older guy.

The first time I was able to get into their world was when I discovered a common interest with one of them — the board game Go. Relations improved. We would have a game and talk about things. Later, when another worker was robbed, I offered him some money. I really wanted to help him out. I lent him some cash, and gave him some common-sense advice, and we became good friends.

Things were gradually getting better. At the beginning, people looked down on me because I was new to the job and could not do anything and had to keep asking questions. However, I quickly mastered a range of jobs and worked hard, and people began to accept me. In the end, the department manager decided that I was the right sort of material, and moreover I had a high school diploma (I kept quiet about being a university student) and they promoted me to assistant shift leader. That made communication with other workers even smoother. By the time I left the factory, I had established pretty good relations with many of my co-workers. After getting to know everybody, we could chat together without any gulf between us. The only problem was that I had to hide any information that revealed my true background.

Because wages at this factory were very low, many workers wanted to quit. But the management deliberately held back a month’s wage to keep them on the job. Because of this, the workers had to bottle up their grievances and stay put. Worse, overtime pay was also very low, at only an additional 1.50 yuan per hour. To keep wage costs down, the factory tried to drag out the shifts, and this caused particular resentment. With shifts going on every day until ten o’clock, there was always the risk of quarrels and even punch-ups. Workers were taking it out on their colleagues when their targets should have been the factory management.

We had hoped to raise awareness among the workers by telling them about labour legislation, and encouraging them to quit or to fight for fair wages relying on their own resources. However, this proved to be a futile endeavour. At first, nobody believed us. Instead, they just said, if you don’t work for three months at this factory, they won’t give you any pay at all. But in the end we did set them a useful example — the three of us all quit, separately, and we all got our money.

The first of us to quit told her department manager of her intention. He refused to accept her demand, and said that if she left she would get nothing. “Leave and you go empty handed. It’s up to you.” he said. A few days later, she cornered the department manager in his office one morning and made a big scene, saying that they were breaking the law and that she would sue them. The department manager had no answers, and could only dismiss her, with pay.

The second of us to quit found it a little more difficult, although things went alright in the end. The evening before his resignation, one of the skilled workers got into a fight with the foreman over some insult. He and his friend both wanted to quit and so they decided to throw in their lot with us. They all went to the department manager but he would not let them go, so they went to the Labour Bureau to lodge a complaint. Later, someone at the Labour Bureau made a phone call to the factory, and told them that “these workers know about the law.” And so they were able to leave without problem.

I was the last to go. This was five or six days later. At the time, many other disgruntled workers had already managed to quit. People said that the boss had already told the department manager that “we should let all the troublemakers go — at any rate, it’s not as if we cannot find other workers.” And so, for me, getting out was no problem in the end. When I left the factory, I actually felt a bit bad about it since I had made a lot of friends there.

After quitting, we wanted to do some more research, and so we spent another two days in the area. Some of our friends from the factory sneaked off their shifts for a bit, or even absented themselves altogether, to hang out with us. Although it was not a huge success, I did find it touching that that they had taken time out for us.

Thoughts on the “workshop of the world”

In this time of globalisation, China has become the factory of the world. These factories do not have their own brands or core technologies, and dependent on foreign orders to survive. The higher the order value, the bigger the profit margin of the plant. However, the cruel truth is one of intense competition among these factories, which keeps prices at the lowest possible level. As far as the workers are concerned, the manufacturer who offered the lowest price will have the most exploitative management. However, with the enactment of the Labour Contract Law, and the global financial crisis, it seems that the smaller factories have been squeezed out of the little living space they once had. In the industrial districts of Dongguan, you see former factories shuttered and abandoned by their fleeing bosses. For the workers, closures are disastrous news. People tell you that the bosses themselves cannot make a living. But are they really so hard-pressed? I doubt it. They merely find that the factory that made money for them in the past no longer does so, and so they think they can walk away from it. And while they are at it, why not take what you can out of the pockets of the workers?

Of course, I do not want to blame any particular capitalist, I only hope that more workers realize that it is not a matter of one factory being any better than another, or of one boss being more decent than another. If you apply traditional standards of morality in judging the capitalist, in the end, you will be the one who gets hurt.

Thoughts on the workers and the future

When I refer to workers here, I mostly mean rural migrants who account for the majority of the workforce in small factories here in Houjie township.

If you go into a factory in search of the “working class,” or “class consciousness,” the result will most likely be disappointment. Hardly anybody has the most basic understanding of these things, even of the Labour Contract Law, which is a key prop for workers’ interests.

These are the living conditions faced by migrant workers: dilapidated dormitories with only a bed and an electric fan, broken doors, and the constant risk of theft; pitifully low overtime pay, shifts lasting until 10.30 at night every day, or eleven or twelve, or with overtime lasting through the night; wages unpaid for a month, no facilities to protect workers against illness or injury, no gloves to protect fingers from the [toxic] toluene used to soften the leather, and the air clogged with varnish spray making it difficult to breathe. The workers’ resentment runs very deep, but there is no way of venting it. Those who want to resign cannot, because, they say, “if we do, we will simply be exploited in the same way in a different place.”

The larger factories are a bit different. Wages are higher, and generally their standards conform with the Labour Contract Law. Usually, overtime is one and half times the regular rate, with double-time at weekends. In the peak season, you can earn 1,500-1,600 yuan a month or more, and the workers want more overtime. However, the downside of better pay is that factory rules are very strict, and there is intense pressure to keep productivity high. This means the workers do not feel free, and the work is very tiring. This paragraph from Modern Times sums up the reality:

There are too many regulations. Every morning, the whole workforce has to attend the morning meeting, and so you have to get up very early, you spend a long time queuing up for meals, when you get into the workshop, you are not allowed to bring in a mobile phone or anything else containing metal. You must sit upright and not cross your legs, you may not talk to anybody... if you want to go to the toilet you have to ask permission, and you cannot be certain of getting it. The foreman and shift leaders are fearsome, and they seek out reasons to abuse people. The workers do not dare to answer back, for fear of losing their jobs.

In a nutshell, the larger factories use high wages to buy the workers’ freedom and right to respect.

The workers cannot choose whether or not they are exploited. When they go back to their villages, they feel even more trapped; the only right they have is to choose between different exploiters and different kinds of exploitation — to choose between money, or freedom and respect.

In our research, we found that older workers (around 40 years) regarded the abominable conditions described above as acceptable. They had suffered worse, and they also felt they still had the option of going back to their villages. But times have now changed. The “second generation” of migrant workers is now taking its place on the stage of history. And they are a new breed. Their different experience means they have different expectations. In the factory, when we asked workers aged around 20 what they felt about the future, the answers were surprisingly similar: “I haven’t thought about it,” or “I will do a few years of work, and then I will worry about that.” Perhaps, not having fully left the parental nest yet, they have not yet established economic independence, and so they have not had to look so far down the road. A small number of them, slightly older workers —22 years or so — did have plans. For example, they want to get a bit of money together, and then open a business themselves in the city. Or they want to get training, become skilled workers, and earn a better wage, or blend into the urban population, study IT, join the managerial class. But nobody seemed to be thinking of going back to the home village. They wanted to earn enough money to settle in the cities. Is this realistic?

The Foxconn suicides have already provided an answer to this question. Many people find it incredible that somebody could be driven to suicide when their parents endured far worse conditions in the 1990s. Given the difficulty the new generation of migrant workers is having in coping with a so-called improved working environment, people wonder if they simply lack the psychological backbone of their parents. But wasn’t their “psychological inability to take it” ultimately the result of their social environment? This society shaped their thinking, cut off their road back home, and left them with no exit. The result is that some people decide to kill themselves, or in some cases kill the boss, and in still others kill people who had nothing to do with their grievance. But the vast majority of people choose to battle on and just get by.

Sometimes it seems like there is no way out. But the recent strike at Honda really stirred things up. Workers — the second generation of migrants — will not return to the days of keeping their mouths shut. They now have their destiny in their own hands. They are gradually coming to understand that the only way to protect your rights is to fight for them yourselves.

Without doubt, the enactment of the Labour Contract Law has provided workers with a valuable tool. Many are now using legal methods to defend themselves against factory managements, and have won back wage arrears. But the capitalists will never give up the fight to defend their profits.

Only through repeated struggle will the workers learn the core lesson that above all, you need unity. This is the way out.
































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