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.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.