Manfred Elfstrom, ILRF
The movement of Chinese from the country’s rural interior to its hyper-industrial coast has been one of the biggest mass migrations in human history. The exact number of migrants is hard to determine, but it generally is thought to hover over 200 million people. There has been no shortage of reporting on the phenomenon, whether in the Mainland Chinese or foreign press. But the migrants’ own voices can often be lost in the clamor.
The magazine Rural Women (nong jia nü) (formerly Rural Women Knowing All), was established under the aegis of the All China Women’s Federation. It is now really a multi-purpose organization, including the magazine, a Migrant Women’s Club, Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, and Practical Skills Training Center for Rural Women.
Even with all these activities, the magazine itself appears to still be at the center of the organization’s mission. Rural Women, as its name implies, carries the stories of the women—“working sisters” or dagong mei—from small villages who keep the economies of Guangdong, Fujian and other provinces humming. The magazine’s Chinese- and English language websites can be found, respectively, here and here.
Another source for Chinese workers’ stories is the All China Federation of Trade Unions-linked newspaper Workers Daily. The paper’s site has a section of “Employees’ Literature”, which is filled with short fiction by workers, and another called “Laborers’ Songs”, which collects accounts of workers’ experiences on the job. Workers Daily also has useful sections on rights protection (wei quan) and advice on labor laws. Unfortunately for English-language readers, the site is entirely in Chinese.
Less officially, China’s legion of NGOs that provide migrant workers with basic legal training or consult on labor disputes also publish their own newsletters. These “zines”—as they might be called in the United States—share poetry written by migrants, tales of the courtroom successes of industrial accident victims, and commentary by veteran labor activists. They are important community builders.
Beginning this week, I will occasionally translate Chinese workers’ stories from a range of sources. Names of people and places in them will have been changed for confidentiality. I will, moreover summarized episodes in places, rather than translating them word for word.
The first of my translations is below. It is a simple story. It neither describes the country’s most egregious labor abuses nor the most valiant examples of migrant workers mobilizing to protect their rights. But it does show the everyday mutual aid that workers rely on to survive in a new, unfamiliar environment.
All Workers Are One Family!
In 2005, I looked everywhere for work and finally found a job with a company making traditional handicrafts. The salary there was only 600 RMB (approximately $86 USD) per month, but unemployment had forced me to taste enough bitterness, so I was willing to take the job. After a trial period, I was placed in the company’s design department.
In the design department, I did everything. After about half a year, my boss and managers held a meeting and promoted me to manager of that section of the company. My salary was immediately raised to 800 RMB and I thanked my boss profusely.
Later, with the road ahead for me seemingly bright, something happened.
This was how it all started: the company’s cook quit, so a new cook, Xiao Li, was hired through an intermediary. Xiao Li was fat and looked like she had lived a good life and had received a high level of education. Her son, as it turned out, was studying abroad and so, in order to pay his tuition, she had traveled from her home to work (da gong).
One day, my supervisor left the job early even though he knew that a large number of stone carvings needed to be moved and he had not explained the process clearly to the people in the office. By the time the freight truck came to pick the things up, there were only few people remaining at the factory. Actually, there were only two of us—a very young guy and myself—left to carry 200-catty pieces of stone. We had no choice but to ask for Xiao Li’s help.
While we were carrying the rocks down the steps, we heard the new cook suddenly cried out, “It hurts!” We put our things down quickly and went over. It turned out that her lower tail bone had been broken. So, we carried her somewhere to rest.
At that time, Xiao Li had no relatives nearby. Equally importantly, she had not yet received any wages and had no way of paying her hospital fees on her own. I therefore took her to the manager in the company responsible for such things and asked him to pay her bill. He called the boss, who had just left on a business trip.
When the manager got off the phone he said, “The boss is sympathetic. As she has just started work, loan her 200 RMB now and then we can take it out of her salary later.”
I was surprised. I thought the boss was an alright guy. But Xiao Li hurt herself moving company products, so how could he make her pay her own hospital fees?
I argued loudly back and forth with the manager.
When the boss finally returned from his travels several days later, the manager met with him right away and said that I had spoken up for the cook. As a result, the boss found me, asked me to return the keys to the warehouse truck and demoted me from the design department to the assembly line! My salary was lowered back to 600 RMB. And I was not even allowed to use the office’s computer again.
Still, I was not afraid of the boss. Through my sticking up for her, Xiao Li received her medical fees.
While the cook was recuperating for half a month, I would help her take her medicine twice a day. As she could not move, I would boil noodles for her to eat. When the boss found out, he wouldn’t let me use the kitchen’s propane for cooking. After Xiao Li had more or less recovered, I quit this uncaring company.
Two months later, she gave me a call. She said that after I left she had had to deal with that horrible boss and Pekingese-dog-like manager alone. “They always say one thing and do another!”
She said that she was thankful to both me and a security guard who also no longer worked there. If we hadn’t helped her, she wouldn’t have recovered so fast. Xiao Li felt she was lucky that she’d met two good-hearted people like us the first time she left her home to work. When her son returned from his study abroad, she would make sure he came to thank us.
I knew I had done a good thing. But after listening to her, I realized that ever since I’d left my home at 15 years old to work, all the employers I’d met had been more or less like this boss. And I now understood that there would always be a certain gap between workers and bosses.
Workers should help workers. All workers under heaven are one family!