Young Chinese workers on strike

Qing Tong loves poetry. “For me, there is magic in words,” she says. Qing ­studied literature in school and can still think of few pleasures greater than losing herself in a volume of poems from the Tang dynasty. And yet the most magical piece of writing to her right now is China’s labour law, which helped her challenge her bosses at a factory where she worked long hours for low pay. Illegally low pay and illegally long hours, as she found out.

Qing, 28 years old, is a migrant worker. And like millions of others of her generation who power the factories that churn out most of the world’s toys, cars, computers and furniture, she wants to be more than a tiny wheel in a giant machine. So, after almost a decade of work at various electronics plants, she decided to give voice to all those like her – young people toiling on the production lines every day, often underpaid and overworked and without a shred of recognition from society.

She did it by writing about her experiences. Her book, From The Wolf’s Burrow into The Tiger’s Den, is highly ­personal, an account of her attempt to find meaning in her life, to craft an existence for herself away from her original rural home. Qing was employed at an ­electronics plant and then, later, at Foxconn, where a spate of ­suicides this spring prompted national soul-searching about working conditions. The book became an immediate ­bestseller in China when it was published last month, and it echoes the message ­conveyed by a multiplying number of strikes and workers’ protests in ­southern China.

“China is basically controlled by the capitalists. All I can do at the moment is speak up for the workers,” says Qing, meeting up with FT Weekend in a café in Shenzhen. “It seems that the government chooses not to see certain things, so we must keep shouting complaints into their ears non-stop. Only after they hear us will they start seeing.” Such an attitude would have been hard to find among migrant workers just a few years ago. The first generation of those who left the countryside to look for work in the cities were content to have a job and a place to sleep, which was almost always in a better place than the dirt-poor villages they came from.

“Our parents’ generation would keep their heads down and endure. But our generation is different,” says Qing. There is a surprising stubbornness in her voice that is at odds with her schoolgirl-like appearance – a determination which, it later turns out, has been key to her ­personal success. “We need to feel at ease,” she says. “The most important thing in life for us is to realise our ­values. No matter if it’s life, love, work – we are not going to be ­humiliated like our parents were.”

Qing’s clarion call is resonating with a new generation of migrant workers who in recent months have launched one of the most powerful challenges in years to the way China ­operates. Throughout May and June, car and components ­factories in southern China were hit by a wave of strikes by emboldened young workers calling for better pay.

There have been sporadic strikes for years in Chinese factories, usually over Dickensian working conditions or unpaid salaries. But the recent outburst of youthful militancy, coming on top of the Foxconn suicides, feels different, a tipping point in the creation of modern China, because it crystallises powerful trends that have been just beneath the surface but which can no longer be ignored. The suicides and strikes potentially represent a mortal threat to the business model that has helped turn China into a ­manufacturing powerhouse and has been the backbone of its ­transformation from sick man of Asia into the Olympics-­hosting, superpower-in-waiting.

The companies in southern China that make the goods that line the aisles of Tesco and Wal-mart took a quasi-military style of industrial organisation that had worked well in Japan, and later in South Korea and Taiwan, and applied it on a scale that had never before been possible. ­Foxconn, which makes iPods for Apple and does work for Sony, Dell and HP, has more than 300,000 people working at its plant in ­Shenzhen, making it probably the largest factory in the world. Most of the workers live in dormitories built by the company in its own factory town. Work patterns across the southern China factory belt are highly regimented, with only short breaks to go to the toilet and downtime taken at the workbench. That model is now coming apart at the seams.

The unrest has also shone a spotlight on the discrimination suffered by migrant workers. China has a floating ­population of 150-200 million people who have left the country­side to find work in the cities. But they are treated as ­second-class citizens by a system that denies them an urban registration document, and the access to public schools, housing and social benefits that come with it. The country’s ­academics sometimes call the hukou policy China’s apartheid. Pressure for reform has been building for years, including a rare act of media ­rebellion earlier this year, when 13 different newspapers issued a joint editorial calling for it to be abandoned. The unrest has been a reminder of that simmering sense of injustice.

Most of all, the strikes signal a generational shift to a migrant workforce who are more assured about their rights and demanding about the sort of life they think they should be living. Earlier migrant workers were much more grateful for the chance to be employed in a factory and earn some money to send back to their families who faced a life of ­grinding rural poverty. They had also grown up hearing ­stories about the famines in the late 1950s and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and probably knew about the ­massacres of protesting students in 1989, all of which made them distrustful of authority but inclined to keep their heads down. Many hoarded their savings for a few years and, ­unwelcome in the city, went back to the village.

Those growing up today in villages and moving to the city have a very different set of expectations. Life in rural China is still a struggle but it usually now includes a television and maybe access to the internet, which has opened young people’s eyes to new possibilities. A factory job is no longer the means to a few extra yuan to send home but the pathway to a better life in the city. China’s very success over the past two decades has also made them more confident and less willing to be cowed when their hoped-for future doesn’t materialise.

“We are a new generation of migrant workers – our ­thinking is different from the last,” says Huang Weimu, who achieved fame by working undercover in a factory in southern Guangdong province, documenting alleged labour abuses and then seeking redress in court. “We want to be treated with respect.”

Huang is from Guangxi, a poor province west of ­Guangdong. His father also worked as a migrant labourer in Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta manufacturing belt before returning, with his savings, to his native village. Huang, who is now studying to pass China’s law exam, has no intention of returning to Guangxi.

Or as Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, puts it: “You should not call them migrant workers any more. They are urban workers and they are there to make their careers.”

“They are more sensitive to social injustice than in the past,” Lee adds. “When they are fed up, they will say ‘enough is enough’. They want a fair share of the prosperity they create.”

Qing Tong has defied the fate of most migrant ­workers. The eldest of three children born to a peasant family in a poor mountainous area of Guangdong bordering Fujian ­province, she dropped out of school at the age of 17. “My dad fell ill, and the medical costs added to the mountain of debt our family already had,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to see my little brother and little sister forced out of school because of the lack of money, so I went.” She moved to Dongguan, a dirty, chaotic city in the Pearl River Delta where much of the world’s toys, furniture and electronics components are made.

One of Qing’s friends from her village was already in Dongguan, working at an electronics factory. Qing soon got a job at that plant, too, and started screwing together computer motherboards for a basic wage of Rmb500 (£50) a month. But that didn’t last long. “I didn’t want to spend my life like that, so I had to learn more,” she explains. Qing got herself a pass for the local library, and what began as a yearning for the poetry she’d had to leave behind soon led her on a very different path. “I started reading everything.” One day, the voracious bookworm came across a copy of the Chinese labour law. She took it home and, poring over it, discovered that her employer was violating the law: the electronics company wasn’t making extra ­payments for overtime, and wasn’t paying social security.

Qing took her copy of the law to the company’s union ­official. But she didn’t get the response she’d expected: “He said, ‘You are mistaken,’ and I said, ‘It’s written here in this paragraph, and I can read it out to you aloud word by word in case you happen to be illiterate.’”

Workers in China can join a trade union, but it has to be a branch of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is affiliated to the Communist Party. In some cases the head of the local union branch is also the factory boss. The recent labour unrest has sometimes been as much about protesting against such conflicts of interest in the trade unions as it has been about the management.

Qing may have failed to achieve huge changes at the factory, but the episode encouraged her to take her fate into her own hands. She started studying high-school textbooks at home and sat her exams the next year. Then she took a degree. At the factory, meanwhile, she was promoted to supervise a production line. She was 20 years old.

Qing’s rise continued after she left Dongguan and started work at Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, in Shenzhen. She quickly became a group supervisor at the huge Taiwanese-owned plant. “They have driven their system of managing people to perfection,” Qing says. “There is a rule for how long you can leave the line to go to the toilet, a rule for what you can or cannot take there, a rule for how you have to stand and how much you’re allowed to move while you work.”

It was a series of suicides among workers in this highly regulated environment earlier this year which triggered a fierce debate about the sustainability of China’s manufacturing model, and which prompted Foxconn to radically overhaul the system it had used in its factories in China for more than 20 years. And just as Foxconn appeared finally to be getting to grips with its crisis, workers at nearby Honda factories were preparing to trump despair with defiance.

Foxconn is the prototype of a certain kind of business organisation in southern China, the large factory town where workers sleep, eat, work and play on the company’s property and are barely integrated with city life. One of the interesting aspects of the Honda disputes was that the workers were much less isolated, perhaps opening their eyes to what they were missing out on.

Honda Lock, the third of four company suppliers to be hit by a strike, is located in the middle of a dense mixed-use area on the southern outskirts of Xiaolan township. Most of the supplier’s employees walk to work every day from privately rented accommodation in Yili village. The surrounding neighbourhood is vibrant and entrepreneurial, home to dozens of often migrant-owned convenience stores, hairdressers and restaurants. There are “help-wanted” signs everywhere, indications of an increased demand for labour as overseas orders for Chinese-made goods rebound from the depths of the global crisis. It is no accident that there has been such a concentrated burst of strikes in recent months rather than last year, when the economic environment was uncertain and workers felt more vulnerable. However, for Honda Lock employees the ubiquitous job postings are also grating reminders of their lowly position in the social hierarchy. A hairdressers promised experienced hair washers and stylists monthly salaries of, respectively, Rmb2,500 (£240) and Rmb5,000 (£490) plus free room and board – far above the Rmb930 (£90) basic monthly salary that entry-level Honda Lock workers were on.

Yin Qiuying, a 24-year-old mother from Hunan province, ticked off the expenses that consumed so much of her Honda Lock salary. A bunk space and utilities in her village dorm cost Rmb200 a month. Assume Rmb10 per day for food and half her income was gone. Frustrated at the area’s meagre manufacturing wages and cost of living, her husband and child had returned home. She was determined to follow them if Honda Lock’s wage offer, which was then pending, was not to her liking. Yin was not optimistic – correctly, as it turned out – that the factory would accept her colleagues’ demand for a 70 per cent increase, to Rmb1,600 (£160) per month.

Qing Tong now looks back on the more than two years that she spent at the Foxconn plant with the more detached attitude of an observer. The reason that she had originally moved to ­Shenzhen was to be with her then boyfriend and now husband, who comes from Ningxia, an impoverished province in China’s arid north-west. “He got a job in ­Shenzhen but I couldn’t take being separated from him,” she says. Qing stopped working in 2008 after she gave birth to their daughter.

“It was then, with all that free time all of a sudden, that I thought about writing things down. I thought, our generation should let everyone know what we are going through, what we feel, what we want.”

She first started posting her observations on Tianya, one of China’s most popular online forums. Following a massive internet response, she was offered a book deal by a Beijing publisher. And she’s not the only one to find a voice this way. Zhou Shuheng, a 32-year-old migrant worker from the central Chinese province of Sichuan, also became a bestselling author last year when he wrote about his experiences. He ­echoes most of Qing’s observations, but takes a more literary approach, producing a book that feels closer to fiction than memoir. It also indulges more in polemic, in which Zhou draws a line between country people and city people – or, as he sees it, the people who work in factories and on ­construction sites and the people who benefit from that labour.

While Qing and her husband have managed to buy a tiny flat in Shenzhen, Zhou is still drifting from one job to the next, earning no more than the minimum wage most of the time and without proper welfare benefits. He’s living, in other words, as he did on the very first day of his migrant-worker career 16 years ago. No job has held him longer than a year or two. “I’ve been a construction worker, I’ve mixed paint, I’ve sold fruit as a street hawker – I’ve done everything,” he says in an interview at a labour union office in Guangzhou, at yet another job that he has just started.

“Things have changed, that’s for sure. I couldn’t even afford to buy a shirt, and now I buy a new handset every six months. Our village now has a cement road leading into it. But then, what have I really gained? I still haven’t got enough for a safe pension, I am still not getting any respect from the city residents.”

As the Honda Lock strike entered its ninth and penultimate day on June 17, opinions in the community were divided on the workers’ action. A media ban meant that even residents in Xiaolan’s downtown district, just a few miles north of Yili village, were oblivious to the industrial drama unfolding in their own backyard. But in and around Yili, every­one had heard about it on the grapevine.

“One thousand yuan isn’t enough, especially from a big employer like Honda,” said a sympathetic Yuan Jiaye. A migrant himself, Yuan had risen to become the head chef at a successful seafood restaurant, where he earns an enviable Rmb7,000 (£680) a month. On the other side of the village divide, Gao Fuming spoke for Yili’s new capitalist class as he waited for his dinner guests at a nearby hotpot restaurant.

“Local people are better than migrants – they won’t go on strike,” said Gao, who grew up in Yili and has profited handsomely from outside investment in the area. He tore down his family’s old village home and built a four-storey dormitory with 40 rooms, which he rents to migrant workers at Honda Lock and other nearby factories. The Rmb10,000 (£970) he collects in rent each month, supplemented by income from a scrap-metal business, funded the construction of his own palatial residence, which abuts the workers’ dorm.

Gao is part of a privileged “native” villager caste which has cornered rents from factories and their migrant workforces. When Honda Lock launched a recruiting drive to put pressure on the strikers, he spotted yet another opportunity. “I told my daughter she should go take a job there,” the landlord said. “She starts tomorrow.”

Gao’s local chauvinism extends to his choice of beer, from the Pearl River Brewery, and as he drank he expounded on his own socioeconomic analysis of China’s recent industrial unrest in a mixture of broken Mandarin, China’s national language, and his native Cantonese dialect. “The people who don’t work have capital. The people who do [work] don’t,” Gao said. The problem, as he saw it, was that workers could use the threat of industrial unrest to “extort” money from their bosses. “We have been having too many of these strike problems,” he concluded. “People who go on strike should be fired. If you want to strike, then fine, we don’t want you. Go!”

Qing Tong has managed to pull herself out of poverty just enough to escape the consequences of such discrimination. With her book payments and savings from years of bonuses in her supervisor jobs, she not only has her own home but enough to no longer worry about paying for the education of her young daughter. She hopes to go back to work once her child reaches school age, but wants to earn money as a writer and not as a factory worker any more. “I need to do something I love,” she says.

But for Zhou Shuheng and most workers at Honda Lock, none of this applies. The car-plant workers, worn down by their dispute, settled unenthusiastically for a 20 per cent increase in their basic monthly wage, to Rmb1,130 (£110). Sun Tinghu, an employee who was aware of how little he earned relative to his Japanese and American peers, was despondent. “Can you help me move to the US?” he asked an FT reporter as the strike wound down.

Zhou is much more combative. Years of conflict with local officials over onerous documentation requirements for migrant workers, arguments with construction companies over unpaid wages and fights with police and “city management” officials over his unlicensed fruit stall have hardened him. He is currently getting to grips with his new job at the labour union office in Guangzhou. “They want me to connect with the workers, but we’ll see how far that can go.”

When trying to describe how he feels, he keeps coming back to one word: “lost”.

“After all these years, I’m still like a leaf floating on water, without roots,” he says. “Should I stay in the city or return to the countryside? Where do we belong?”

Kathrin Hille is an FT correspondent in Beijing, Tom Mitchell is the FT’s south China correspondent and Geoff Dyer is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief

Analysis: China: Showing the strain

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