Waking from a ten-year dream: Migrant workers in Dongguan

06 April 2011
Lü Lianjuan and her husband first settled in Dongguan ten years ago, hoping to create a better life for themselves and their family by laboring in China’s factory to the world. Over the years, their dreams evaporated and they were left struggling just to get by. They are now contemplating a return to their home village in Guangxi but feel trapped. Younger workers, meanwhile, have no intention of going “home,” and are determined to stake a claim in the city.

In February this year, after the Lunar New Year holiday, the popular magazine,
Southern People Weekly (南方人物周刊) spent time with Ms Lü and her family in the urban village of Xiadun and drew a compelling portrait of migrant worker life in the Pearl River Delta. It shows that while conditions have improved in the past year for some factory workers, for others, that change has come too late.

An edited and translated version of the magazine article appears below. The original Chinese article “十年一觉打工梦” can be read here.

Waking from a ten-year dream

Nancheng’s Shopping Street is close to the heart of downtown Dongguan. But it is winter and there are few shoppers here. Sought-after fashions sit quietly in well-lit and spacious stores. On giant billboards, a woman shows off her curves and a man models a suit and leather shoes, playing with desire and style. On the other side of the street, huge smokestacks stand tall, billowing smoke high into the sky. Time and space are jumbled and confused.

From time to time, 36-year-old Lü Lianjuan comes here to walk around, and gaze at the clothing on display. Sometimes she imagines herself wearing such fashionable outfits but this is just a fantasy. She got the jacket she is wearing more than three years ago at a street market for just 32 yuan.

She has been in Dongguan for ten years. Until last year, she worked at an electronics factory in Nancheng, cleaning components day after day, quietly expending her youth.

“Dongguan has changed dramatically, but we haven’t changed.”

For Lü, getting a pay rise over the last ten years has been like rowing upstream. Meanwhile, prices have soared like wild horses, and Lü has become a mother of two, increasing her burden by the day.

When Lü and her husband first arrived here ten years ago, Nancheng’s Shopping Street was just a smelly drainage ditch near the canal that would not be built up for another three years. They settled in nearby Xiadun village. Lü looked around at the small, ugly, tile-roofed houses, thinking of her far more picturesque but poverty-ridden village near Guilin.

Lü’s family of three cultivated just six sub-fields in Jiangkou village. “We simply could not feed ourselves,” she said. Most villages in China are in a similar state as Jiangkou. China is so densely populated that there is less than one mu of arable land per capita. After the implementation of the household contract responsibility system, labour productivity increased, resulting in a large labour surplus. The period after 1997 saw yearly declines in agricultural production and revenues. This, combined with heavy taxes and fees, meant that young, strong farmers were condemned to a life of poverty if they stayed.

At the same time, the Pearl River and Yangtze River deltas, which had survived the Asian financial crisis intact, were flooded with new industries. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization, and even more manufacturers moved to China, creating the workshop of the world in Dongguan, and drawing in tens of millions of young rural migrants such as Lü Lianjuan.

Soon after arriving in Dongguan, Lü got a job at the Xinke Electronics Factory with the help of her cousin. She earned 400 yuan a month plus room and board. Her husband got work on a furniture factory assembly line as a painter. They earned less than 1,000 yuan a month between them and spent 120 yuan a month on renting a small house in Xiadun. The urban village was full of migrant workers. On summer nights, street vendors would sell small slices of watermelon. They could sell maybe 2,000 slices each night. The rented rooms were so cramped, young people slept in doorways or on the street. Lü and her husband could only fit a small bed into their little room. After a hard day’s work, they would sometimes lie in bed and imagine their future. Back then, they still had dreams.

Life then was full of uncertainties and dangers. At that time, migrant workers had to apply for a temporary residence permit, employment permit and migrant worker’s license. The fees for the various permits were 300 to 500 yuan each year. If the workers were found to have no documentation, they would be sent to a detention center. Not only would they have to re-submit their documents, they would also have to pay a fine of 200 yuan or more. Each day, security officers arrived in the village to check papers. They broke into houses at random, making searches and arresting people. If children hid behind the curtains, they ripped the curtains down altogether.

Lü and her husband conscientiously submitted their paperwork and paid their fees, living in constant fear. Nevertheless, those few years passed relatively peacefully. Some of Lü’s hometown friends and relatives were not so lucky. Baojun, for example, was arrested and detained three times. Once Brother Tan took out his temporary residence permit for a security guard, who ripped it in half. Uncle Sun was arrested and detained, just for speaking in the same accent as some migrants who had been fighting and caused a disturbance. Not only was he fined 200 yuan, he was further punished by having to sweep floors and wash bed covers.

Back in 2001, several government ministries jointly issued a notice abolishing unreasonable fees such as “temporary accommodation charges.” But it would not be until the tragic death of a college student two years later that the chronic and systemic constraints on the freedom of movement of migrant workers would really be shaken up. On the evening of 17 March 2003, this college student was walking in the streets of Guangzhou, and was arrested by the police because he was not carrying his temporary residence permit. In the detention center, he was kicked, punched, beaten, and bludgeoned. He died three days later in an emergency clinic.

When the Southern Metropolis Daily reported the event, there was a public outcry. Several scholars wrote a letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, stating that provisions restricting freedom of movement contained in the Regulations on the Detention and Repatriation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars, contravened China’s Constitution and laws, and should be changed or revoked. In June of that year, the State Council abolished the regulations, which had been in place for 21 years.

The college student’s epitaph reads: Remember Sun Zhigang. – Someone who sacrificed his life for the rule of law in China

Shortly after the Chinese New Year in 2004, coastal provinces such as Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang began to experience shortages of migrant workers. Farming was becoming more profitable and many migrant workers chose to stay at home that year, working the fields rather than return to the factories and continue to put up with poor wages, long hours and dangerous working conditions.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Security issued an Investigative Report on the Shortage of Migrant Workers that year, which stated that, over the previous 12 years the monthly wages in the Pearl River Delta had increased by only 68 yuan, with migrant workers earning an average monthly salary of about 600 yuan. Wages were slightly higher in the Yangtze River Delta. Not only were wages low, workers needed to work overtime to get them, and the wages often went unpaid. Government projects were the biggest culprits in terms of withholding workers’ wages; in 2001 alone, the amount owed by local governments for construction projects was as high as 66 billion yuan. Figures from the All-China Federation of Trade Unions show that, by 2003, wages owed to migrant workers in all industries nationwide totaled 100 billion yuan.

For Lü Lianjuan, the labour shortage meant that she finally became a regular employee at Xinke Electronics. She carried a wage card, and in September 2004, her basic salary was 440 yuan and, after adding in 114 hours of overtime, she eventually received 1,179 yuan. Two months later, she began to get an old-age pension. These sudden improvements made her happy for a while.

Every day, she got up at six o’clock, and by 6.50.am arrived at the assembly line and began to clean magnetic heads, working until the end of her shift, usually at seven or eight o’clock in the evening. The sky would be completely dark; she hardly ever saw the sun outside the factory gate. Every day she was so tired that her back and stomach ached, but she willingly endured all this. The only way to make money was through overtime and more overtime.

In the following years, wages increased very slowly until 2008, when new labour legislation was introduced; only then was the basic wage raised to 815 yuan. The Employment Promotion Law implemented that year stipulated that rural migrants working in the cities enjoyed the same labour rights as urban workers. The equal employment of migrant workers had finally been codified into law. The same year, the State Council established a new office, the Joint Committee on Migrant Workers, tasked specifically with handling migrant worker issues.

The good times did not last, however. In September, the financial crisis broke out. Small and medium-sized enterprises dependent on exports closed down one after another and around 25 million migrant workers lost their jobs. Most of them received no compensation and they quietly returned home or sought new jobs elsewhere.

Lü’s factory was also hit by the financial turmoil. In early 2009, the factory did not allow her to work overtime. Unable to earn more money, she “followed her instincts” and, along with other workers, slacked off during normal working hours, deliberately slowing down, or simply stood still at her work-station. At the same time Lü became pregnant and, fearing for the safety of her unborn child, decided to quit her job. She remembered a co-worker who had worked while heavily pregnant and gave birth to a malformed baby who died soon afterward. One morning four years earlier, Lü herself had fainted due to excessive inhalation of disinfectant and was hospitalized for more than 40 days. She received no compensation except for medical expenses. She often had headaches and thought this might be a side-effect of her work. Lü was not alone. It is estimated that 90 percent of all victims of occupational disease in China are migrant workers.

Hopes invested in her children

Lü’s family of four is now crowded into a small, single room in Xiadun village, with their 12-year-old son sleeping in one bed, and she, her husband and little daughter squeezing into the other. The little girl constantly cries and has a runny nose. There is no closet; their clothes hang on the end of their son’s bed. Rents are constantly rising and they have moved dwellings several times in Xiadun. This small, single room of a few square metres costs 300 yuan per month. The balcony is covered with an iron mesh, and Lü has cut a hole in the mesh to let the sun into the small, damp room. One end of the balcony is used for cooking; the other end is the bathroom. When it rains, she drags the small gas stove into her house, cooking on the floor.

The couple brought their son to live with them last year. Until then, he had lived with his grandmother in the village home. To save on costs, the couple never once went home for the Lunar New Year holiday. The normally 700-yuan round-trip fare is two to three times that over the New Year, so one trip home costs one or two months’ wages. As their son got older, his grandmother gradually lost control over him, and Lü was afraid that he, like many other children left behind in the village, would go to internet cafes and get addicted to games or, like that 14-year-old child she heard about, die of a drug overdose.

Because of the household registration system, their son cannot benefit from the city’s compulsory education system. Instead he attends a nearby school for the children of migrant workers where the tuition fees are nearly 5,000 yuan per year. Lü cashed in her company pension to pay for his schooling but it is only enough for two year’s education.

Ever since Lü quit her job, the family has had to rely on her husband for support. He works in a factory for 12 hours a day but gets no insurance or benefits whatsoever. After deductions of 300 yuan for meals and other fees, he brings home just 1,400 yuan per month.

Life has got worse for Lü and her family. Even at the height of her earning power, her wages never exceeded 2,000 yuan a month, even after working in excess of 100 hours overtime. Prices, on the other hand, have soared. In 2000, it was possible to buy100 jin of good quality rice with 100 yuan; in 2010, that amount only bought 40 jin of ordinary rice. Pork is so expensive that the family can only eat it on special occasions. On her birthday for example, Lü bought five yuan worth of pork and cooked it with turnips to celebrate. But she insists on cooking an egg every day for her daughter; the children are her ticket to the future. She thinks, even if I have no savings and no insurance, I have children, so I won’t grow old without support.

There are almost no appliances in their home. There is a very small television set that Lü was at first unwilling to buy for fear of wasting electricity. They bought it for 60 yuan at a used-goods shop, at her husband’s insistence. Their largest consumer item over the last ten years is the DVD player purchased last year so that their son could learn English; it cost nearly 500 yuan. Their son does not like studying, and the DVD player has been set aside. He wants to go home. He misses swimming in the river at home, he misses the green fields and playing with his friends. He has begun to get to know some hometown kids at the school, and they have formed a group to defend themselves against the neighbourhood bullies. He is small in stature and suffers beatings every day, but he always fights back. “Fight back even if you can’t beat them:” This is the latest lesson the 12-year-old has learned.

Lü Lianjuan feels that this city will never be her own. She has thought about going back, but the room they lived in after getting married is now rented out, and because they have a second child, they will be fined if they go back.

During the last year, China recovered from the financial crisis and a new round of labour shortages began. Lü thinks now that the factories are all short of workers, it could be an opportunity.

Caught between staying and leaving, in the uncertainty of being ready to move at any moment, and facing a bleak future, the only certainty Lü knows is to save as much as possible and minimize her consumption.

Turning into a robot

Baojun comes from the same township as Lü Lianjuan and, at the age of 30, has also been working in Dongguan for ten years. He also has never returned home to be with his family for the New Year. He earns over a thousand yuan each month; but in addition to paying his rent and food expenses, he also must feed his wife and daughter.

“Wages are lower and lower, and prices higher and higher. The city is more prosperous, but that has nothing to do with me.” This is how Baojun sums up his ten years in Dongguan. For more than 3,000 days and nights, he has faced the same production line, repeating the same movements over and over. Sometimes he lifts his head to look around him at everyone lined up and uniformly doing the same things, and then he looks at the big, rumbling machines, and he feels like he has become a robot.

Many times, he has wanted to escape the factory to start his own business, but he has always quelled the impulse and suppressed the desire. If he were to lose the small savings he has built up through years of scrimping, saving and overtime work, his family would become destitute.

In recent years, this desire has grown weaker and weaker, sometimes just a little ripple disappearing in a pool of stagnant water; now it almost never resurfaces.

“Working can at least get you enough food and clothing, but it is like gnawing on tasteless food. It has consumed my youth, and I have become more and more timid. I have no hope, but my despair does not go away.”

For the last ten years, like all factory workers, he has worked shifts both day and night. Night work is the most lonely and uncomfortable; he imagines his daughter’s face to keep himself going. His daughter is his only hope; he wants to keep her healthy until she is grown, not allowing her to work like this, repeating his own misfortune.

During his time off, Baojun sometimes walks along Nancheng Shopping Street, but he never buys anything; he just watches other people spending their money and imagines himself dressed in a thousand-yuan suit and “looking like somebody.” But he doesn’t dare stare too much in case he meets the gaze of the sales staff.

His leisure time is mostly spent playing cards at the house of Uncle Fan from back home, or watching television. But the TV is less and less enjoyable; Baojun feels “the news broadcasts are totally unreliable; all the news is fake!”

In recent years, Baojun has begun to go online. He has learned of foreign trade unions fighting for the interests of their workers and is very envious. “The most that the trade union in my factory does is to organize everyone to go see a movie.

“In other countries, workers doing the hardest and most tiring jobs can still buy a house and drive a car. But in China, it does not matter if you work for one year, ten years or 60 years, your fate will remain the same.”

He points to 80-year-old Mr. Fan at his side. Old Mr. Fan is hard of hearing, without any social security whatsoever, relying on his 57-year-old son for support. Since Uncle Fan and his son came to Dongguan ten years ago, they have plied the streets and alleys every day, making a living by gleaning scraps and collecting rubbish. Uncle Fan sits on a stool, burning charcoal to get through the long winter. Baojun can see his own future in Uncle Fan and his son. “Dongguan is just a train platform.” He would like to go home.

“Down with Dongguan, down with the boss,” he says. His mouth forms a slightly bitter smile.

Where is home?

The rivers and hillsides of Guangxi still represent an escape route for Baojun, but for 22-year-old Sun Ping, they will forever remain part of his childhood, and nothing more.

His parents have also worked in Dongguan for ten years. They return home every few years or so to work a little more on their house, adding one floor at a time. Sun was a left-behind-child who came to Dongguan every so often to visit his parents. Then, at the age of 18, he dropped out of high school to go to work.

Over the course of a few years, he has moved from factory to factory in Dongguan; “If I stay in one place for too long, there is nothing more to learn, so I don’t stay.” He values the accumulation of skills more than money.

This year he made a trip back home and felt there was “nothing of interest” in his home village. For several days, he felt bored and listless; “There was no place to go and nothing to see.”

At the factory, Sun Ping works 12 hours a day but he does not feel tired. He lives in this crowded urban village and loves the hustle and bustle of the city. His biggest purchases are all clothes, sports brands costing up to a few hundred yuan for one item. He feels that wearing these brands makes him look “clean and tidy” and well-suited to city life.

People from Sun Ping’s generation have had access to the internet from an early age and have a broader view of the world than their parents. They have already lived through tumultuous times, coming from a pre-modern countryside, to shed blood and sweat in the heat of industrialization, and then consume goods and services in the midst of a post-modern frenzy.

Eighteen-year-old Zhang Zhu works on a factory assembly line. His favorite pastime is to buy new clothes and go with friends to a club and dance happily. It is his way of escaping the mechanization of his work life. He hates being called a “migrant worker.” He says take the word “worker” and replace it with “employee”.

He and his mother got into an argument recently over his parents’ plan to build a new house back home. His father has worked for many years as a security guard at a factory and his mother works as a janitor, painstakingly saving 30,000 yuan. But the money has only been enough to lay the foundations. His mother wanted Zhang to complete the project but he said: “Who would want to go back to live there?”

Zhang was tired of his mother’s complaints, and hoped that she would support him with money in starting a business instead. “When their generation earns a penny, they just want to go bury it in a house. What I think about is how to turn the one penny into two.” Zhang’s gaze is firm and not at all evasive.

Zhang takes advantage of the internet to study labour law and notes down violations of the law by his boss. He also tutors his mother on the law, something of a trend these days. In the past few years, the internet has become a channel for a new generation of migrant workers to become aware of their own rights, protect their own interests and make their voices heard.

In May 2010, a group of young workers in a Honda factory in Foshan took action because they were dissatisfied with overly low wages and benefits. They went on strike to protest, demanding negotiations with the management on pay and conditions.

Afterwards, the workers returned to work conditionally, elected a representative and organized a delegation to negotiate with management. The delegation issued an open letter on the internet demanding that the management agree to convene a general staff meeting and that union elections be held among the production line workers. It also stated that, if no satisfactory reply was received, they would go on strike again in three days. They wrote: “Our struggle is not only for the interests of the 1,800 employees of this factory. We are also concerned about the rights of workers throughout the country, and we hope to set a good example.”

They protested the inequality between labour and management in China in a positive way. They broke through the collective silence, weakness and degradation.

The same year, at Foxconn, 13 young employees jumped to their deaths from their dormitory rooftops. Their tragedy provoked widespread concern over the fate of society’s new generation of migrant workers, who have become the primary migrant worker force in China over the past ten years.

Sun Ping however condemns the suicides of his peers. “Those people who jumped had glue for brains,” he said.

Nevertheless, he too acknowledges that his most important lesson from these years of work is that reality is cruel, and money is the only logic. Without money, there is no way to get a foothold in the city. He will not work like this for his entire life; he feels he can change his fate, although he doesn’t yet know how. But he is sure he will not return to the countryside because, like this rapidly developing country itself, “those childhood feelings are already gone; the countryside is for the older generation.
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