Cindy Shuck, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
The Factory Girl
From the damp, dirty hallway,
From the long lines of the cafeteria,
From the rumble of the machines and the unbearable factory noise,
The daylight drifts by, the starlight drifts by.
Forever crying on the production line,
The factory girls endure exhaustion and hardship.
Every peaceful, lonely night,
The factory girl is bursting with longing for her village
And she can hear the sweet call of the mountain goat.
She dreams about the soft, warm bend of her mother’s arm,
And she can smell the sweetness of the old, secluded garden.
Although China’s export economy is suffering the effects of the recent recession, the months preceding the downturn were marked by news of the country’s incredible growth rates, as economists and politicians alike marveled at China’s ability to assert its importance in the global economy. The majority of China’s massive production and export levels can be credited to the manufacturing cities of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province. With its seemingly endless factories and production lines, this region is labeled as the economic motor of modern China, but few dig deeper to see the individuals responsible for these staggering output levels: the internal migrant workers. Nanfei’s poem “The Factory Girl” provides us with a firsthand account of the life of a female migrant worker and allows us to take a closer look at the issues at hand.
The emergence of internal migrant population was a direct result of China’s economic reforms in 1978 coupled with the changes in urban and rural living regulations. Although a 1958 residency regulation limited each person to strictly urban or rural residency and commerce, reforms in 1970 allowed farmers to sell part of their produce on the market, therefore permitting them to supplement their produce sales to the government and gain more economic independence. Finally, in 1984, farmers were able to settle in small towns without risk of punishment by law.  The eased residency restrictions coincided with the general economic expansion of the Communist Party’s open door policy in 1978. This resulted in new competitive challenges for Chinese firms and coerced them to seek increasing quantities of cheap labor. Thus, the migrant boom was born, and young Chinese, mostly women, migrated to the new Special Economic Zones and Open Economic Zones in the South, hoping to prosper from their country’s pending success.
Today, thousands of factories, restaurants, construction sites, delivery companies, and countless other services are worked by China’s 130 million migrant laborers. Although for many years the government was hesitant to recognize the burgeoning population of this mobile workforce, in 2003 the State Council of the National People’s Congress, China’s cabinet, issued a statement labeling the migrant workforce as crucial to the growth of the national economy, prohibiting job discrimination against migrant workers and advocating for better working conditions and schools for migrant children. They even went so far as to encourage migration in rural villages, and on village walls, slogans began to appear such as “Go out for migrant work, return home to develop. Labor flows out, money flows back.”
In “The Factory Girl,” a personal poem written by a female migrant worker in the Pearl River Delta, we get a glimpse of the difficulties in the lives of internal migrants that don’t often make the news. Our author’s alias, Nanfei, which literally means “fly south,” is a reflection of the “flight” of Chinese workers to the Southern provinces, many of whom come from rural backgrounds in the central parts of the country. As Leslie Chang discusses in her new book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, although many workers come from small farming towns, “most of today’s young migrants don’t come from the farm: They come from school.” Chang elaborates that to these young laborers, farming is the vocation of their parents, and since most of their generation is better educated and more prepared to enter the workforce, they are eager to leave their homes for excitement of the southern boom towns.
In many cases, the financial circumstances of workers’ families force them to migrate so they can support their families. Especially after the rise in the cost of living that came with the economic opening of the 1980s, many families could no longer afford for all of their children to stay at home. Even before their sons or daughters are grown, many parents go out and work for weeks, months, or years at a time to supply their families with extra income. Moreover, many children go out to work once they are grown so they can send money back home in a display of gratitude to their parents for birthing and raising them. When these “debts” are finally paid, children can return home and settle down to start a family.
In addition to these financial motivations, though, many female migrant workers leave home in search of independence and excitement, given that for most young Chinese, the idle life of the countryside can sometimes be as crippling as poverty. For some women, migration offers an opportunity to escape arranged marriages, gain some work experience, earn a dowry, or fund their education. Factory work in particular is a good option for many “because of the popular association between factory work and endurance for hardship and disciplined labor,” which are considered useful traits for future wives. In addition, these jobs grant women considerably more freedom than they have at home by giving them the chance to explore romantic relationships, earn an income, and at the same time preserve their femininity.
However, in the case of many workers like Nanfei, the glamour of factory life is quickly overshadowed by harsh working conditions and chronic homesickness. Assembly line workers usually put in thirteen-hour workdays with two breaks for meals, and typically earn about four hundred Yuan, or fifty US dollars, a month. In addition, pay docks are frequent for violations of factory regulations such as wearing headscarves, growing long nails, or rolling up uniform sleeves; forgetting to apply for a Leave Card before going on a bathroom break; refusing to work overtime shifts, or taking a leave of absence with prior permission. One would think that with such dire conditions, workers would be eager to look for higher paying, more comfortable jobs, but usually this is almost impossible, as most companies require workers to stay for a minimum of six months and withhold pay for the first two.
Besides the stresses of work on the production line, many workers also suffer from depression caused by homesickness and the general lack of personal contact in manufacturing towns. As Leslie Chang relates through her interviews with a female migrant worker, friends are hard to make and even harder to keep in the migrant world, mostly because of the inherent transience of the lifestyle. Moreover, almost all factory floors are marked by a strong division of workers into regional networks of women from the same province, city, or even village. These connections can be the difference between finding a way to begin the job search, choosing a good factory, or surviving life as a migrant, period. However, although these regional associations make migrant life much more secure and enjoyable for the workers involved, they create a much harsher working environment, as “workers identify each other less by name (many of which are faked) than by their province or country of origin.” Finally, as Ching Kwan Lee describes in her study of factories in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, for many workers, “the rigid compartmentalization of the factory property into areas for different ranks of workers contrast[s] with their former freedom to roam the countryside at will.”
All of these factors can be seen in Nanfei’s poem through her description of the harsh conditions of work on the production floor and the nostalgia she expresses for her rural home. She has clearly worked from morning to night on a monotonous production line, describing how “daylight” and “starlight drifts by.” Her sorrow even translates into tears that fall on the conveyer belt transporting the product she has been assigned to assemble. Finally, the evocation of a pastoral setting when she describes the mountain goats and the “sweetness of the old secluded garden” is further evidence of the homesickness that Nanfei experiences at her job.
While news of China’s economic growth as reported by international media has been dominated by facts and figures about the southern boom towns, Nanfei’s poem provides with a unique glimpse of the more personal realities of factory life. The raw emotion that she expresses by way of her poem provides a way for workers in countries with similar production systems to relate to Chinese migrants, even though they might be half a world away. As laborers in countries around the globe continue efforts to assert their rights, it is this type of connections with workers like Nanfei that will help reinforce the global working class and further promote its cause.
 Chang, Leslie T. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. Spiegel & Grau, New York: 2008. p. 12
 Chang, p. 12
 Lee, Ching Kwan. “Engendering the Worlds of Labor: Women Workers, Labor Markets, and Production Politics in the South China Economic Miracle.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jun., 1995), pp. 378-397
 Chang, p. 12
 Chang, p. 13
 Chang, p. 13
 Chang, p. 9
 Lee, p. 385
 Lee, p. 385
 Lee, p. 385
 Chang, p. 5
 Lee, p. 383
 Chang, p. 4
 Lee, p. 391-392
 Lee, p. 384
 Lee, p. 383