Awakening of New Power

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics17 Jun 2013Yedan Li

A Glimpse Into Life Stories in the World’s Factory – Part 2 on migrant workers

For ethical reasons relating to the author’s ongoing research, the names of the town and the people in this article are all fictitious.

In part 1 of this blog, I discussed the locals’ exclusive life in the divided Qingyang town. This part of the blog will go to the other side of town and explore the lives of an ‘emerging power’: low-educated emigrant workers.

Compared with highly educated workers, poorly educated emigrant workers suffer more in terms of fitting into the local environment and culture. They gather in crowds and flood into Qingyang town, sometimes with family members, sometimes with their fellow villagers. They live on incomes from working in factories. According to Guangdong government regulations, the lowest monthly salary for employees was 920 yuan (120 euros) in 2010, and 1100 yuan (137 euros) in 2011 and 2012. Since May 2013, the minimum has been raised to 1340 yuan (170 euros). An ordinary worker, with bonus and overtime work payment, earns as much as 2000-3000 yuan (250—375 euros) per month. This is even lower than the monthly dividend payment a local gets.

The workers’ scope of activities is limited to the neighbourhoods surrounding the factories. They live in the collective dormitories of factories, work in shifts, and do repetitive manual work. A manager from Hong Kong once told me: “Just imagine if you live in a room crammed with 7 other people, and you face the same and tedious jobs every day, how can you feel attached to the town that you are working in?”

Indeed, working in Qingyang town, these emigrant workers still have their roots in where they come from. Even if the government makes social insurance (such as pensions) compulsory, workers still prefer the factories to convert it to cash and pay them directly, despite it being illegal. This is because of the geographical limitation of the social insurance, in other words, when they grow old and cannot work in factories anymore, instead of staying in Qingyang town, they still want to go back to their hometowns.

Within the hometown complex, most workers are very mobile in working locations. A great number of them work in one factory for 11 months, then go back to their hometown for a whole month during the Chinese New Year (the most important festival in China). When the festival is over, they come back to Qingyang town, and look for new factories to work in. The flexibility of workers is also reflected in the recruitment slogans of factories everywhere.

Their detachment from Qingyang town reinforces the workers’ attachment with the other people from the hometowns. Small groups have emerged, based on the workers’ geographic origins. The biggest groups are from Hunan, Henan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, etc. People from different geographical regions can come into conflict, which can easily spread to the whole group. There was a case of workers stopping work to demand pay for working overtime. When this was paid, they still refused to resume working, but asked for the product line leaders, who were from other provinces, to be removed.

The segregation is even clearer between immigrants and locals.“Doing the same job as emigrant workers” is something that locals hardly, if ever, do. A local girl Li told me: “Powerful parents would send their children to work for local governments, otherwise local young people stay at home doing nothing or just for some small business. The government is calling on the locals to care less about money and work in the factories to learn more skills. However, even if the locals do not care about money, they will also not make their kids do similar jobs to emigrant workers.”

In the next and last part of this blog, I will write about the disputes brought about by the segregation of emigrant workers and locals.