Chinese university students investigate life on the factory floor

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.

进厂打工杂感

打工经历:

经过两天的准备后,我们一行三人于23日来到了后街赤岭村。一个下午我们便把赤岭逛了个遍,但是却没有发现合适自己的工作,要么是工资低,要么是工厂不要新手。绿洲还不错,工资较高,而且招新手,但绿洲是大厂,进厂需要很多程序——初试、复试、体检,还要买厂服等,麻烦,而且得花一百多元钱。最后,我们决定到一些小厂试试,隐瞒自己新手的身份,蒙混过关。

第二天一早我们就去一个鞋厂应聘。面试的时候心里怦怦直跳,总害怕别人发现自己撒谎,然而整个过程却出奇的顺利。后来出厂的时候才发现,负责招工的女士原来也是新招的,她自己并没干过鞋厂的活,我们胡诌的那些话她并不明白怎么回事。后来去课长办公室复试,本来应该要考试的,但由于生产线上缺人,也就省掉了这一关。于是我们阴差阳错总算顺利“通关”,进入忠桦鞋厂。厂子占地面积很小,就两栋楼,一栋是员工宿舍和食堂,另一栋是车间和仓库,总共有200多员工。

上午初试复试,下午交上两张照片和身份证复印件,按照要求填好合同(只有厂里保留一份),分配寝室。到这里就万事大吉了,第二天就可以正常上班。25号我们开始正式上班,并不需要专门的培训,只要示范一下就能学会。

每天几乎都得上班12个小时,一开始都有点不敢想象,但真正的投入到工作中后,发现自己根本就没有时间去想象。自己就是一部机器,一直在运作,大脑什么都不用想,只要重复的作一个动作就可以。

刚进厂时,车间里面对的都是陌生的面孔,大家都冷冷的,也没有谁会主动讲话,问别人问题的时候他们的回答也尽量简单,似乎生怕说多了会泄露什么秘密,在寝室只认识一个同去的好友。更可恶的是,同寝室的其他人都是另一个部门的,作息时间不同,他们每天早十分钟下班,然后都会集体去泡网吧,很难见到。就算他们回来了,也就谈论怎么玩游戏,怎么泡妞,根本找不到什么共同的话题,只有一个年纪大点的大叔比较容易亲近。

第一次融入进去是和他们找到了共同的话题——一个工人和我有共同的兴趣——围棋,所以我们关系变得非常好,经常一块下棋,讨论一些问题;然后,另外一个工人被“抢劫”了,我慷慨解囊,真诚地帮助他度过难关,借钱给他并教他一些常识,我们也成为了要好的朋友。

局面逐渐变得好起来,一开始其他人都看不起我这个新来的,因为我什么都不会,什么都问他们。不过我很快地适应了很多岗位,而且干活也比较卖力,大家就开始慢慢认可我了。最后,课长觉得我比较实在,而且还是高中文凭(隐瞒了大学生身份),就提拔我为班长助理,这样我和其他人的交往就更加方便了。到出厂前,我和很多工友建立了不错的关系,大家熟悉后,聊天也就几乎不会有任何隔阂了,只是还得隐瞒与身份有关的信息。

由于这个厂的工资很低,很多工人都想辞工,但厂方却为了留住工人,故意拖欠工人一个月的工资。为了这一个月工资,工友们只好委屈地留下来。更可恶的是,工厂的加班费特别低,每小时1.5元,为了节省工资,工厂使劲拖班,工人们怨气都特别大。每次加班到十点,车间里总会有人吵架甚至大打出手——他们把应该向工厂发泄的气都发泄到其他工友身上了。

于是我们希望通过告诉工友一些法律常识,鼓励他们离职,而且靠自己争取拿到应得的工资,但我们的说服总是无力的,没有任何人相信我们。他们反而告诉我们,我们在这个厂工作不到三个月,不可能拿到工资的。但是我们的行动给了其他人榜样——我们一行三人,前后分别辞工并且拿到了工资。

第一个是一个女生,她首先找课长辞职,课长不同意,并说如果辞工就拿不到工资,不要工资可以自便。于是,她就一个上午缠着课长,甚至在办公室大骂,说他们违法,要去告他们云云。课长无奈,只能辞退了她,并给了工资。

第二个男生辞工比较困难,但也取得了成功。辞工的头天晚上,一个技术工人和组长因为口角打了一架,于是他和他的朋友(也是技术工)便要辞工,正好我们也想辞工,便决定一起。于是第二天一早他们便付诸实践,但是课长考虑到生产怎么都不同意。于是他们便跑到劳动局投诉,后来劳动局的工作人员给厂里打了电话,告诉厂方“这几个工人懂法律”,于是他们也成功的辞职。

我是最后辞工的,这是在五六天之后了,这时很多想辞工的工人都已经成功离厂,据说经理已经告诉课长“把所有闹事的工人辞掉,反正我们也不是招不到工人”,所以我辞工竟没有费半点力气。

离厂的时候,我竟然有些不舍,因为厂里有很多的朋友。离厂之后,我们想做些调查,便在附近呆了两天,厂里的几个朋友总是忙里偷闲,甚至旷工出来陪我们玩,虽然这并不是太大的成就,但心里暖暖的。

带着目的来到深圳,自然会有不少的思考,不过更多的是发现自己理想的苍白无力。但在我头脑里,“工人阶级”、“世界工厂”、“流水线”等概念却越来越充实,突然我发现自己可以站在工人的立场上去考虑一些问题了,而这个立场是我以前一直向往的,也曾几何时认为自己的立场本来就已如此。下面我想说说我的一些不成熟的见解:

世界加工厂:

在全球化的当今,中国的大多数工厂无疑扮演着世界打工者的角色,没有自己的品牌,没有自己的核心技术,依靠着外国的订单活着。订单的价格越高,工厂的利润空间就越大,然而事实却是残酷的——众多的加工厂激烈竞争,把价钱压到最低。而对于工人来说,谁的价格最低便等于谁更敢于用更残酷的剥削手段。

然而,《劳动合同法》的实施,金融危机的出现,似乎把小工厂的最后一道生存空间都挤掉了。在工业区经常可以看到,昨天还在生产的工厂,今天便关闭了——老板逃跑了!对于工人来说,这是多么大的噩耗啊!然而却总听见有人说,工厂老板活不下去了,难道这些逃跑的老板都活不下去了吗?他们只不过发现原来赚钱的工厂现在不赚钱了,所以也就是可以抛弃了,既然如此,那何必不多在工人身上多赚一把呢。

当然,我并不想去责怪某一个资本家,一个真正的资本家也许都会有这样的选择——“资本来到世间,从头到脚,每个毛孔都滴着血和肮脏的东西”。
我只是希望更多的工友能够认识到,没有哪个工厂比哪个工厂好,也没有那个老板比哪个老板善良,如果用传统的道德去衡量一个资本家的好坏,最后受伤的只是自己。

工人:

这里讲的工人,更多的是指农民工,因为在这些代工企业中,农民工占了绝大多数。
如果要到工厂里找“工人阶级”、“阶级意识”,结果似乎总是令人失望的——连最基本的,也是跟工人利益关系最大的《劳动合同法》都不会有多少人知道。破旧的宿舍,只有床和电扇、电灯,连插孔都没有,门还是坏的,经常会发生偷盗事件;加班费低得可怜(1.5元/小时),每天加班到晚上10:30,甚至十一、二点,有时还会通宵加班,工资拖欠一个月,没有任何防护职业病的措施,不戴手套便沾去渍水和甲苯洗鞋面,喷的亮油弥漫在大半个车间让人窒息等等。工人们怨气很大,但却无处发泄,想辞工却不得,“就算辞工了也只是换个地方被剥削而已”。这是小厂的情况,在我们调查的厚街赤岭村,几乎所有的小厂都如此。

大厂的情况稍有差别,工资较高,一般都按劳动合同法规定的标准,平时加班费为1.5倍工资,周末为2倍工资,旺季每个月可以拿到一千五六甚至更多,他们的希望就是多加班。但高工资是有代价的,大厂里的管理很严格,生产效率很高,所以工人很不自由,工作也很累,“工厂规定太多了,每天早上整队朝话,所以得提前好长时间起床,吃饭排队也需要很多时间,进车间不让带手机等任何含金属的东西,工作的时候必须坐端正,不许翘二郎腿、说话等,上厕所要打报告,而且还不一定被批准,组长班长都很凶,专找事骂人,工人还不敢还口,否则就有被开除的危险……”,《摩登时代》里的场景成为现实。总之,似乎“大厂用高工资买断了工人的自由和尊严”。

工人没有选择是否被剥削的权利,回到农村更没有出路;只有选择被谁剥削和如何被剥削的权利——要工资还是要自由和尊严。在调查中发现,年纪较大(40岁左右)的工人都觉得上面所说的恶劣的待遇是可以接受的,他们有过更苦的经历,而且还有农村的退路。但随着时间的推移,“第二代农民工”渐渐的登上了历史舞台。

他们与父辈不一样,不同的人生经历决定他们不同的诉求。在工厂里,当我们问到20岁左右的工人对未来有什么看法时,答案竟然惊人的相似,“没有想过”、“先打几年工再说”,或许他们在父母的庇护下没有成为独立的经济人,所以他们还没有必要考虑这么遥远的问题。还有一小部分人,一般年龄稍微大一些,22岁左右,他们有他们的想法,如先打工攒点钱,然后在城镇里做些生意;学点技术活,做一个技术工,可以得到较好的待遇,或许还能融入城市;学习电脑,做到管理层等,总之,似乎没有人想再回到自己的老家农村,就算回也是赚足够的钱定居到城镇里。但这个理想现实吗?

富士康的X连跳已经给了我们答案。对于跳楼事件,很多人觉得不可思议,90年代更恶劣的环境他们的父辈都能接受,而现在环境改善了第二代农民工倒不能接受了,于是便有了“心理承受能力差”云云的论断,这种对跳楼者个人的种种猜测我不想做太多评论,我只是希望能够从他们身上看到共性——他们之所以“心理承受能力差”,难道不是社会的产物吗?这个社会给了他们理想,断了他们的退路,却没有留给他们任何的出路,于是有的人选择杀了自己,有的人选择杀了老板,还有的人杀了毫不相关的人,大多数人选择了苟且活着。

如果老一辈的农民工能叫做真正的“农民工”的话,新一代的农民工身上农民的影子似乎正在逐渐退去,他们没有“农民”的退路,他们只能靠自己的智慧和双手去争取自己的生存空间。

出路:

我们不能从工人的现状中看到出路,只能从工人的将来中找。

工人的出路在于工人本身,知识分子苍白无力的呐喊难以在工人阶级的大海中激起半点波纹,但偶尔激起的微微涟漪中,工人的力量展现得一览无余——本田罢工不知道让多少知识分子兴奋不已。

工人,第二代农民工,不会再选择沉默,因为他们的命运掌握在自己的手中,因为他们会慢慢懂得利益都是自己通过斗争得来的。《劳动合同法》的实施无疑给了工人一个好的教材,许多工人利用法律手段与厂方斗争,最终取得了应有的工资。但资本(家)是不会主动缴械的,为了利润,他们会想出各种应对措施。而正是在反复的斗争,工人才会懂得斗争的真理——联合。

而这就是他们的出路。
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