Leaving the 'Blood and Sweat Factory'

In English, the term is "sweat shop."  The Chinese term is 血汗工厂, which is translated as "blood and sweat factory."  In other words, more than just sweat is left on the factory floors in China.  According to Wikipeida: a "sweatshop is a factory, usually in a third-world country, where people work for a very small wage compared to their first-world counterparts, producing a variety of products such as clothes, toys, shoes, and other consumer goods. The term is usually used as a pejorative, and connotes a factory in which the workers may be kept in a harsh environment with inadequate ventilation, and may sometimes be abused physically, mentally, or sexually, subjected to long hours, harsh or unsafe conditions, and the like."  

The following is a translation of an article in Nanfang Weekend.

On this day, there was no activity at the factory.  Luo Zhanglin and Luo Ming just hung around the factory gate to chat with the gatekeeper.  Sometimes, they sat on the ledge of the flower bed; sometimes, they simply squatted on it.  They used their common dialects to discuss their daily lives and work, and about incomes and expenditures.

At that moment, a pedestrian came by to ask for directions.  They were very familiar with the place.  "The two tallest buildings over there is Shangyi," Luo Zhanglin who was wearing a white t-shirt stood up and pointed southwards down the road.  "But why are you going there?  There is nobody there."

Shangyi Shoe Enterprises Limited used to be the largest factory in Xianan Number 2 village in the Nanhai district of Foshan city.  Half a year ago, this Taiwan-capital factory closed and the owner has disappeared.  The Guangdong province Labor and Social Security Bureau announced last month that the company owed wages to more than 1,700 employees to the amount of more than 480 million yuan.  At the same time, they also announced that another 19 enterprises have seriously violated the labor protection laws and regulations.

When the media reported this piece of news, they seemed to characterize factories such as Shangyi as "blood & sweat factories" because people think that the factories make profit from the blood and sweat of their employees.  In China, the workers at such factories are mostly migrant laborers from rural areas.  This was confirmed in the notice from the Guangdong province Labor and Social Security Bureau: 11 of the 20 enterprises were in the manufacturing sector.  As everyone knows, the laborers at such factories come mainly from the rural villages in the inland provinces.

Luo Zhanglin, the gatekeeper and the parents of Luo Ming have worked at Shangyi for varying periods of time.  They all came from rural villages.  In practice, Shangyi once employed almost 2,000 workers mainly from rural areas.  They were so numerous that Xianan Number 2 village became a village whose population came mainly from the outside.

"Eighty percent of the people here came to work," said Luo Min.  "Within the workers, 80 percent spoke the Sichuan dialect."  Sichuan is the Chinese province with the most number of migrant laborers working outside the province.  According to statistics, there are 150 million migrant workers in China working in the cities.

When the migrant workers return home to visit their families, they usually describe the outside world to them and encourage them to follow their footsteps.  Since there is a vast gap in development between the urban and rural areas, such encouragements are very persuasive.  When the latecomers decide to leave home, they usually choose to head towards those places that their friends and relatives described to them.

Luo Zhanglin was introduced to Shangyi by a relative.  Luo Zhanglin is twenty years now.  He gave up studying before graduating from junior secondary school.  On the first night that he slept in the worker dormitory, he felt great because he had good visions for the future after seeing the spacious factory work space and the vast factory area.  He said: "I was wishing that I could go to work sooner."

After more than a year at the factory, he got to know Luo Min.  In speaking together, he found out that Luo Min came from the same secondary school in the Zigong area of Sichuan province.  Luo Min was one class after him, and completed only the second year of junior secondary school.  His grades were terrible, so his mother suggested that he quit school and join them to go to work in Guangdong.

Luo Min's parents were among the first wave of migrant workers in China.  After giving birth to their son, they left the child with their parents and left for Guangdong.  They had worked at Shangyi for more than ten years, and they have also worked at other factories for several years.  Right now, they used the savings from their work to set up a small food/drinks store next to the vegetable market in Xianan Number 2 villages.  To be precise, this is a very small shop.  They can cook a few simple dishes, but they even have to purchase their beer from elsewhere.  Nevertheless, "this is our own business" according to their son.

At the time when he met Luo Ming, Luo Zhanglin was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Shangyi Shoe factory.  Since some time already, his wages were habitually owed by the factory; the food was getting worse every day, as the pork was not even cleaned.  It was always overtime and more overtime.  "I heard that no other factory was like this," he said.  "The more I listened to others, the more I felt that this factory was going down."

Other than owing wages, overtime is another major way by which the factory damaged worker interests.  At Shangyi, the workers worked from 8am to noon in the morning; they worked from 130pm to 530pm in the afternoon; overtime was from 630pm to midnight in the evening.  That is to say, they work more than 12 hours a day, far in excess of the legal limit.  The "no overtime on Saturday and no work on Sunday" rules were not observed.

Overtime causes people to become extremely fatigued.  Luo Min said: "You can't even get up the next day."  This is a major important reason why industrial accidents occur so frequently.

The only time that Luo Zhanglin become happy was the several days of the year for "human rights inspection."  On the night before the human rights monitors visited the factory, the managers got busy.  No matter whether there was overtime or how late it was, they assembled the workers and told them to stand in time to memorize how to answer the questions from the "human rights monitors."  They stood in front of the workers and yelled, "Follow me and recite.  If you can't recite it, you can't go to bed."

It was a headache to go through with these last-minute preparations.  But on the next day, the happiness of receiving the wages made up for any headaches.  The "human rights monitor" watched over the entire process of wage distribution, and they asked the workers how much they received.  Luo Zhanglin remembered clearly that they got a lot more money than usual.  "Four hundred yuan more on the average," he said.

These "human rights monitors" were provided by the factory's clients either through third-party organizations or themselves according to international protocol.  The group was supposed to check on whether the supplier might be breaking labor regulations or violating worker rights.  These inspections and the various fixed or irregular inspections by various levels of government labor departments form the monitoring network for the factories.  Professor Liu Kaiming, who is interested in the livelihood of Chinese migrant laborers, is involved in dozens of these assignments each year.

Liu Kaiming admits that "human rights monitoring" requires professional personnel in order to work effectively.  "Because they will try to fake you out."  If the "human rights monitors" have concrete evidence, they can offer a detailed reform plan and ask the client to follow up and watch the supplier.  "There will be some improvement," said Liu Kaiming.

Although no one dared to tell the truth to the "human rights monitors" while under the watch of the factory managers, the workers still welcomed their presence enthusiastically.  "When they come, we are obviously happy.  They'll even put a few more drops of oil in the food.  When they come to watch the wage distribution, we are even more delighted."

At the present moment, Luo Zhanglin and Luo Min have both gone to work at a small factory named Lihe.  This factory has only about 100 employees.  He is responsible for imprinting the decoration onto the surface of the shoes.  When there is no rush job that requires overtime, he has some leisure time for himself.  Of course, when there is a rush job, he will have to do overtime.  The nighttime overtime pay is only 1.5 yuan per hour, even less than the standard 2 yuan per hour.

Luo Zhanglin has no complaints.  He is quite happy that the factory does not owe him any wages.  When Lihe operates past 1030pm at night for overtime, they will offer night snacks such as stirred fried rice noodles and fried rice.  This is more than his expectations.  In his heart, the standard for a good factory is the following: 800 to 1,000 yuan per month distributed on time; when there is no rush job, he can have some leisure time.

Luo Min's standard has two more items: living conditions should be good and the boss and managers should be caring.

When he was still attending school, he went from his hometown to visit his parents.  The good conditions at the Shangyi workers dormitory impressed him a great deal: two seven-story high buildings in which fewer than 10 people share one dormitory room.

The parents who had worked more than ten years in Guangdong wanted their son to come too because they felt that even though the work is hard, it is better than farming the fields back home.  Compared to more than a decade ago, they feel that it is a lot better now to work than back then.

After entering Lihe, Luo Zhanglin did not stay in the factory dormitory but rented a room for himself.  Although he lived in a simple house where the stairs have no handrail, the walls are unpainted and the bricks are showing outside, he still felt that this is worth 100 yuan per month.

All young people like Luo Ming have posters of popular singers from Hong Kong and Taiwan on their room walls.  But he is embarrassed to admit that he does not recognize some of the singers and he has never heard their songs.  He likes Andy Lau, so he spent 128 yuan to buy a Andy Lau concert DVD at a supermarket.  Compared to his income, this is a shocking price.

Lihe also fitted his second requirement.  His uncle-in-law is a manager at the factory.  When the boss is absent, his uncle-in-law is the man is in charge.  This 30-year-old man has spent 10 years to go from a migrant laborer to become a factory manager.  Luo Min regards him as a model role.  He got Luo Min into the factory and assigned his nephew to coordinate business.  This is a well-regarded position which ordinarily would not be given to an inexperienced person without good education.  This is the advantage of having a relative in management.

But Luo Min does not regard Lihe as being the ideal enterprise.  There has been an industrial accident.  A worker was burnt while operating the equipment and had to stay in hospital for a week.

In China, it is a vexing problem to enable migrant workers to get social security.  Often, the migrant workers do not understand the details and purposes of the various fees that they pay.  At Shangyi, the workers paid 71 yuan per person per month.  But when someone tells you that this was your pension savings, someone else will counter that this was unemployment insurance.

Since there is no way to transfer the pension fund freely between rural and urban areas and the migrant laborers cannot afford the pension fees, many migrant workers will often choose to cancel their social pension accounts when they leave their jobs and receive a lump cash payment instead.  Last year, 250,000 migrant workers in Shenzhen quit the social pension system.  According to the Labor and Social Security Bureau, the participation rate in the social pension system among Chinese migrant workers is only 15%.

But this does not mean that they do not know how to take advantage and avoid problems.  If they withdraw from the social pension system, it will be after having considered the trade-offs.  When they remain silent in front of the "human rights monitors", that would be because it suits their immediate interests and not because they do not understand what is happening.

For similar reasons, they cannot say with certainly that Shangyi was a "blood and sweat factory."  "Hmmm, how shall I say?" Luo Min found it difficult.  "It is hard to say for sure that it was a 'blood and sweat factory.'"

Even as many workers complained, they were also quite understanding about the boss's behavior.  "The factory was started in order to make money."  A female worker named Wang at the personnel department at Lihe was embarrassed and asked, "Do I seem to be too considerate about the bosses?"

Such unexpected answers may be due to the workers feeling that most factories are the same.  According to their logic, if Lihe is not a model factory, then one cannot say for sure that Shangyi was a 'blood and sweat factory.'  Under these circumstances, as long as the factory does not close, the workers will naturally choose those factories with better living conditions and larger in size.  In Xianan Number 2 village, Shangyi was that type of factory.

Some of the workers who had been at Shangyi still remember the good things that Shangyi brought to Xianan Number 2 village when business was good.  Someone said that when there were large number of workers on overtime, the food market continued to operate into late night.  Now, the food market is closed by 10pm.  Someone else said that it used to require 130 yuan to rent a place, but there are no takers at 100 yuan nowadays.

Luo Zhanglin does not bear a lot of hatred towards Shangyi.  In retrospect, the most unbearable thing was the owed wages.  "Otherwise, everyone would still work for them."  He thought that the Taiwan boss of Shangyi was a good person, but the two managers were evil.  Besides, the workers lived quite well over there.

Luo Min and Luo Zhanglin are getting tired of Xianan Number 2 village.  The girlfriends that they got to know there also speak the Sichuan dialect.  Just as the locals don't like them, they don't like the locals.

The entertainment venues in the cities were not designed for them.  Even when they go to Nanhai or Foshan on their off days, they choose free public places such as public parks.

They still don't understand the local dialect.  They never watch the Cantonese programs on television.  In recent days, there is a Cantonese opera troupe performing in the village plaza.  The migrant workers who are used to Sichuan opera have no interest at all.  Of course, those shows were not brought in for their sake.

A woman named Wang rode her bicycle home after work and stopped by to watch the opera at the plaza.  A member of the "security team" came over and told her to go away.  The "security team" is a local militia-like team responsible for maintaining public order and is paid for by the village organizations.

Wang's female companion said that the member of "security team" wanted her to go over to the other side of the stage in order to watch safely.  She vehemently denounced the explanation as absurd.  She said loud, "He never minds that which he should mind."

Obviously, this scene not only symbolically shows the estrangement between the outsiders and the locals, but it also illustrates what the experts call the "loss of cultural rights."

To change these conditions, the experts believe that it is necessary to mobilize the social forces and the government must enforce the relevant laws and educate the workers.  "It is not that we cannot do anything about it.  If we go back to the constitution, everything is possible."

Objectively speaking, the government has done plenty in recent years to improve the conditions of the migrant workers and to protect their legal rights.  The Guangdong province Labor and Social Security Bureau is running a publicity campaign on the protection of the rights of migrant workers, with the demand that all this should be coordinated with the monitoring activities with special emphasis on protecting the wage rights of the migrant workers.

According to the leader of the Guangdong province Labor and Social Security Bureau, the fact that they publicly listed the 20 enterprises that seriously violated labor laws is a "change in tactics" in the sense of changing from "administrative procedures to social monitoring."

According to media reports, Guangdong province labor and social security department deputy director Sun Qingji said that most employers in Guangong follow the labor protection laws and regulations and employer-employee relations are mostly harmonious.  But a very small group of units ignore the labor protection laws and regulations and intentionally violate the legal rights of the workers.  Therefore, Guangdong province has decided to use the "public notice" to increase the pressure on these units.  Accordingly, the Guangdong province Labor and Social Security Bureau will publish the names of the units which engage in owing wages, excessive overtime work and avoidance of participation in the social security system.  The information will be disclosed on the websites, professional employment referral organizations, community labor rights organizations and the media.

Apart from public notices at the provincial level, the provincial Labor and Social Security Bureau will demand all city and county level departments to implement those laws seriously without backing off.  If someone violates labor laws and regulations, they must be pursued to the full extent of the law.  Those serious cases that have bad social influences and are incorrigible despite repeated warnings must be publicized to society at large.

Under the supervision and watch of the government and society at large, many factories realize that they need to change.  As of last year, especially after the western world imposed quotas on Chinese textile products, Liu Kaiming has become quite busy.  Many formerly laggard enterprises are now inviting him to train people on social responsibility and SA8000.  "These invitations come from all over the country," said Liu Kaiming.