China's peasants opt for urban grindstone

China's 80 to 110 million migrants brave tough factory conditions for a once in a lifetime shot at leaving the farm.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Liu Wang is a migrant worker who just bought her brother his first suit. She's elated, but won't show it.

Like most laborers in this east coast shoe factory town, Liu will go back to her village for spring festival. The holiday, which started Thursday, is a time when migrant sons and daughters bring home gifts that show their hard work and regard for the family. Liu thought about the suit all week, and spent this afternoon on the assembly line debating which color her 14-year old brother would like. She ended up buying wide-pinstripes in gray, the latest fashion in this Jinjiang neighborhood called Yang Dai.

The suit was a good buy, bargained down to $16. It's a third of Liu's monthly salary. In Liu's village it is nearly a matter of public record what gifts and what sums of money arrive from the wealthy east this time of year, and a nice bounty gives the family "face."

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Outside the brightly lit clothing shop it is getting dark, and energy levels are rising. Life in migrant-majority Yang Dai is lived in a frenzy of small dramas, right on the street, and the sounds of snooker and stir- frying are heard every few feet.

But this isn't the noisy energy of quitting time. It's just dinner time. Most of the 17- to 30-year-olds who gather at phone shops, or rush around the block with a bowl of noodles in hand, will shortly re-don their uniforms and work four more hours in the factory. They start at 8:30 a.m. and end at midnight. What's more, they largely prefer this life to the life back on the farm. Most have never seen so much money.

Outside China the fabled rise of the economy here evokes images of neon skylines or streets crowded with shiny black luxury cars. Yet the core of China's growth are low cost products made by a largely migrant labor class, peasants, from the heartland.

The muscle of China's economy

The migrants, estimated at between 80 and 110 million, are the muscle of the economy. They can be seen any day in east coast cities, walking along highways, squatting in construction crews, arriving from interior villages no one has heard of.

Most work at least 28 days a month; between 50 and 70 percent of them will send their pay, called remittances, back to the family. The money is used to help build a house, to get aging parents off the farm, to make sure that a brother can continue to study at local schools that lately require tuition, or to finance a small shop.

"Without migrants, the whole structure would collapse," says David Wank, a China specialist at Sophia University in Tokyo. "They staff the shops, restaurants, factories, construction. It all depends on migrants."

Interviews with dozens of migrants demonstrate their great resilience. In the social strata they are an often invisible if not forgotten sector whose capacity for cheap labor and long hours are matched by their ability to face rugged obstacles such as crowded workplaces, police detentions or abuse, and avaricious employers who often withhold pay or otherwise exploit them, knowing they are easily replaceable. NGO groups that organize unofficially to help migrants often work under great pressure, their leaders say.

Despite low status, migratory workers represent a real change in China. For the first time in this ancient place a significant number of peasants are leaving rural areas where their families have lived for eons. Many will return to settle in the village - but an increasing number plan not to, as land and jobs in the villages remain scarce.

At the same time, migrant earnings from the east partly help to steady China's economy as it moves from farm to city. Their remittances, sent back to China's interior regions, help ease the poverty as countless farm villages continue to struggle and to be "hollowed out," as a Chinese rural economist Li Chang Ping puts it.

"The migrant remittances are crucial to stabilizing the countryside, while the central government figures out how it will handle the rural issue," says one Beijing scholar.

Migrants have limited legal standing. No union represents them, and for the scant number of Chinese that contemplate organizing, the millions of new migrants are a "worst case scenario," as one expert puts it.

"The conditions are appalling in so many cases, and [migrants] keep coming back for more," Robin Munro of China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. "For those living in the country, this is a once in a lifetime chance to make a separation between the farm - the life of a peasant - and the city. And they are grabbing for it. They have no concept of unions, benefits, representation."

Yet change also creates new expectations and frustrations among migrants. Take Xiang Li, from Shang Xi. He's shy, well groomed, wears turtleneck and blazer, with only tell-tale white socks giving away his background. He eats a plate of rice and vegetables for lunch. Xiang left home at 17 and spent three years in Guangdong factories. The life there was too rough for him; he was in a garment factory that withheld pay and had a curfew. So he came north. He, too, is going home for spring festival. But he has not saved, and will only bring back two pairs of tennis shoes - not an impressive bounty.

Caught between farm and city life

Xiang is caught between two worlds. He can read and write, and follows the news and watches movies and TV as much as possible. He doesn't want a farm life, but finds the assembly line life equally hard. He spends all his extra time at the computer parlors in town, where for 50 cents an hour he can log on or play video games. (Even at midday the parlors are full, with many migrants slumped over, asleep, in carrels.) The family expects Xiang to help, but in Yang Dai, he always goes out with his friends. "I'm no good. I can't save," he says with sadness.

After four years as a migrant, Xiang is always tired. He often dreams of studying in a college, something he admits is "not realistic," as he puts it. "I don't know if I can live this life anymore," he says. "I don't know what to do."

Migrants are called dagongcai, slang for peasants in the city. Most of them have arrived here with the laoshang, or groups of workers recruited from the same village. In Yang Dai, eight to 12 of them live in tiny rooms with beds stacked four high to the ceiling on two sides of the room. No one wears their uniforms outside the factory; it is a point of pride to wear coats, slacks, and leather shoes on the street.

They relax by playing snooker on tables dragged into the street outside small shops. There is a skating rink, and a series of "luxury cinemas" as they are called, which may be a TV in a booth, or chairs clustered in front of a small screen. Usually what's showing is a Hong Kong gangster flic (extremely popular, and where the penchant for pinstripes comes from) or slightly risqué romance films. Meals are taken in small eateries that open onto the street and are run by locals. Usually it is a charcoal fire outside with a wok, a giant rice steamer, and neatly arranged bowls of vegetables, and sometimes chicken, that workers choose from for a stir fry. Meals run from 15 to 40 cents.

As lunch hour ends, a set of 20 workers sit on their haunches outside the factory. They have bad teeth, and some young men have hair dyed yellow in the beauty parlors in town that also act as a social magnet. They are in very high spirits, which is typical.

Most started work in Guangdong where they speak of plant guards who would not let them out at night. The wages in Guangdong averaged about $50 a month; here they make $75-$95; but the salary is based on volume of production, and depends on factory contracts. When there are no contracts, there is no work.

Chen Jian is from interior Sichuan Province. He came two years ago with the laoshang. He glues soles to shoes for about $90 a month, but his employer only gives him $35. The rest is withheld until the end of the year. While that ensures that Chen saves, it also ensures that he stays the full year. Chen remembers his first month as a nightmare, since he hadn't been paid and had no money. Instead, he is planning to save for another two years and apply for a taxi license in Sichuan. The drivers training school and license costs $210. He is almost there.

Fan Wei is from Anhui Province. He doesn't watch TV, perhaps that's one reason he does not know who Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are, China's two top leaders. He misses home terribly but says "there's nothing I can do about it." There were too many family members at home already farming and land is scarce, so he went east. All his pay is sent home to keep his brother in school.

Migrant experts say that daughters generally have a better remittance rate. The classic pattern is to work two years, come home, get married, and have a baby. Later, many return. "So many who come to [the big cities] don't want to stay on the farm," says a social worker based in Hong Kong.

Migrants' status, usually extra-legal, has been a means for employers and police to take advantage. Technically, the migrants are supposed to sign work contracts that both register them and require the factory to pay a local sum to the city. In practice, few migrants do sign, giving them ambiguous legal standing.

One constant angry complaint voiced by migrants is "withholding." According to labor organizations in Hong Kong, up to $365 million is withheld by managers who restrict pay in exchange for some service, or don't pay at all.

Withholding takes place under a number of schemes. A typical one is the "apprenticeship deal." The migrant works for three months, gets trained, then finds his three months pay was the price of apprenticeship. Another is the hated "ongoing recruiting scheme." In this one, factory conditions are so intolerable that even tough migrants can't take it, and they quit after a few months. The managers refuse to pay them, citing "agreements" to pay at year's end. The migrants just leave, and the manager hires new labor.

Human rights leaders outside China have expressed the hope that the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao leadership in Beijing, which has claimed a populist identification with ordinary Chinese, will ban the withholding of wages.

Then there is the "police shakedown." Migrants have long been targets for local police, who pick them up and ask for resident papers. When no papers are produced, they ask for bribes in order to avoid detention. Migrants still live in fear of police - mostly in large cities, not neighborhoods like Yang Dai. Vagrancy laws in China have changed following a recent celebrated case in Guangdong where a graphic designer, Sun Chi Gang, was mistaken as a migrant and beaten to death in custody. "We heard of very few problems since the fall," says a Hong Kong source.

Migrant conditions - hours, pay, time off, restrictions, family policies - depend widely on specific variables like the region, the boss, the product being made, the factory. In Guangdong, time off is one or two days a month. But if orders are heavy, migrants may work three months without a day off, according to human rights sources.

Garment factories pay less, and they rely on piecework, so hours are longer. Electronics assembly depends more on the time of year, but in general is more lenient and lucrative. In peak season, technology migrants work until about 10 p.m.

By late January, many migrants working in Fujian have gone home, since bus tickets for the annual China-wide New Year's holiday are cheaper in December.

When asked what they think about during long hours on the assembly line, younger migrants often say money, friends, after-work plans. Older workers usually answer, "family." An increasing number now bring their families east. But many can't. Last year, Zhang Wu brought a DVD player costing $100 to his wife and five year old son in Sichuan for spring festival. This year, he paws through a DVD shop in Yang Dai, picking up gift cartoons. "I really miss my son," he says. "He's what I'm thinking about."

Big growth for China's small businesses

Today's small and medium enterprises:

• Account for 60 percent of all sales.

• Create 57 percent of all profits.

• Pay 40 percent of all taxes.

• Generate 60 percent of total exports.

• Provide jobs to 75 percent of urban residents and most of 200 million rural migrant workers.

Employees in private enterprises:

• 1980 800,000, or 0.2 percent

• 2002 81.5 million, or 11.1 percent

Source: Asian Development Bank, China Statistical Yearbook

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