Editor’s note: Comrade Shen Mengyu, a progressive activist who played a leading role in the ongoing workers’ struggle in Shenzhen, wrote about her experience being a worker in China and organizing fellow workers to fight for their rights. On August 11, Comrade Shen was kidnapped by a group of “unknown personnel”, presumably connected to the big bourgeoisie or the old state. Another comrade was also kidnapped earlier today (August 12). We strongly condemn these illegal and criminal acts of abduction and demand the two comrades to be immediately released.
In June 2015, I graduated from the School of Mathematics and Computational Science at Sun Yat-Sen University. Unlike my classmates, I did not choose the job in IT companies, but to enter an industrial plant to work on assembly line.
My choice was not impulsive, but deeply rooted in my life experiences, my appreciation of the industrial workers, and the urge to make their life and working conditions much better.
During the years at Sun Yat-Sen University, I learned about the lives of industrial workers from various talks. I realized that many workers were crushed under the wheel of the so-claimed economic development, such as the Foxconn workers frequently made themselves free-fall from the roofs of the factory. I also learned an occupational disease called pneumoconiosis, which made the patients suffocating and would rather die faster. Then there’re more deadly harms in the working environment, e.g., benzene poisoning, leukemia-inducing chemicals, deafening-noise…
Workers built the city with their sweat and blood, but then were crushed and pushed away by the city.
Once I attended a talk by Lu Huilin from Peking University, on the status of migrant workers. After the talk, a student asked: “As college students, are we counted as the privileged group?”
The privileged?! Such identification hurts me hard.
Yes, I was born in a well-off family never worrying of food and clothing, had access of quality education resources, and my future seemed bright. Do I deserve all these?
At that moment, I began to examine myself and my fellow students who had a promising future. I began to ponder on the 40,000 fingers broken in the Pearl River Delta every year, on the 280 million “Migrant Workers” who sacrificed their youthful years for building the city but could not stay!
I have relatives who work in Dongguan. Years ago, my uncle was hit by a car on his way to work, resulting in permanent injury. He did not know that he could ask for compensation from his employer. His eldest daughter, my cousin, dropped out of school and went to work. In the New Year gathering, I only saw her glamorous dresses when she came home. Now I realized the hardship she had to take in the factory.
One summer I went to Dongguan to see my cousin, passing through the flashy high rises, she took me into the narrow alley, dark and damp, wires and cables cramming in the air. The rivers and ponds were filled with garbage and stinky. The workers in uniforms were apparently worn-out… Many years later, I realized that the place is called urban-village, and the villagers are all “migrant workers.”
With doubts and sympathy toward the situation of “migrant workers”, I began to study labor laws and regulations, and went to industrial areas, urban villages, and construction sites to understand the real life and predicament of workers.
I visited the construction sites around the school. On a rainy day, the underground garage where the workers lived was filled with water, soaking their clothes and beddings. They were anxious about losing daily income on the rainy days. I explained the labor laws to the workers, but the black and white words of the law could not get them a simple labor contract.
I went to Dongguan Yuyuan Shoes Factory, which is known as “Foxconn in the footwear industry” producing for the brand-names like Nike. In the old dormitory of the factory, I was told that after working for more than ten years and close to retirement, they just found out that the factory did not pay its share of social security and provident fund for the workers.
I was lost and shocked! What kind of power is it that makes the law useless? What took away the retirement protection of the workers who had dedicated their lives to the factory?
Facing the bloody reality, I realized how useless the law is! Born-poor laborers will die poor…
In the summer of 2014, the sanitation workers in the university district of Guangzhou defended their rights. At the scene of demonstration, the workers denounced the hypocrisy and shamelessness of the property company. They deducted workers’ wages and benefits, defaulted on social security and provident fund, signed blank contracts, and evaded the compensation they should bear. When the worker representatives went to negotiate, they got threatened. The company’s manager even put on the arrogant gesture of “what can you do about all the shits and bullying”.
The district office and the labor bureau were indifferent and stayed away from the ‘conflict’, while the students run around for the rights of workers. In this process, we were touched and educated by the workers who united and fought hard. During those days, students and workers supported each other and eventually achieved the victory.
Such a victory restored our dignity and rights, and showed me another possibility for the future.
Hard-working workers should not be treated like this. I must always be with the workers to defend our dignity and rights.
Working in an auto-parts factory
To be always with the workers, becoming a worker was my first choice!
After graduation, I came to the Guangzhou Economic Development Zone, a place where I can find a job only through an intermediary. When you want to find a job, you must first pay the agency fee. The agents always boast the enterprise first, and after collecting the agency fee, it will leave you alone for various reasons such as the company temporarily not recruiting blabla. Being repeatedly fooled by two agents, I finally landed a job in a Japanese-invested autoparts factory, Guangzhou Rihong Electromechanical Co., Ltd., and became a real industrial worker.
Rihong mainly produces springs on engines and clutches for the automakers such as Dongfeng Honda, Guangqi Honda, and Nissan. After a simple training, I walked into the workplace for the first time. The roar of the machine stung my eardrum, the smell of grease and the metal dust filled the whole workshop. Workers were busy in the shiny working area. The hazard warning of benzene and other chemicals was scaring. Workers wore disposable masks that can neither effectively block dust nor filter poisonous gas, and some didn’t even have disposable masks.
This is the so-called “high-wage” autoparts factory, where workers sacrifice health for the so-called “high-wage”.
I learned that many colleagues had suffered from rhinitis and bronchitis due to long-term working in such a harsh environment, as well as hearing loss and white blood cell drop…
The workspace was hot all year round, and it was already unbearably hot in May. It was normal when the heat is 35 degrees or more, and some places are even close to 50 degrees. Due to the labor intensity and heavy perspiration, a thin mask was soaked and suffocating, let alone a thick sealed mask.
In order to make a living, people choose the job between health and the job. Such a choice due to no choice is our routine.
Because the basic salary was low, we had to choose the latter between weekend break or no break at all！
Because report of work-related injury would lead to the loss of year-end bonus, we had to choose not to report the work-related injury between the injury-related rights and the year-end bonus.
Because the supervisor had the control over our year-end evaluation, we had to buy the expensive underwear he/she advertised to flatter him/her!
When getting supervisors’ curses and insults, we had chosen to silently endure rather than fighting back!
Even more distressing is the pregnant women in the factory. Pregnancy means that they need to work harder, because the supervisors will push them harder to reach the production goals. Thus, they had to give up their legal work/break schedule for pregnant women. The harsh environment and production goals make them suffer every day. Very few pregnant workers can continue to work. The labor intensity is one thing, and the harmful conditions to the fetus is another.
My friend Xiaomei, who had miscarriage every pregnancy during her work in the factory, was able to get rid of this nightmare after she left. Another colleague took her lessons and chose to leave immediately after pregnancy, but still could not escape the misfortune of miscarriage.
Those older employees who have dedicated all their youth to the company, got the job at the age of ignorance. For more than a decade, they had worked under the counting watch of supervisors, one action per second, hurry, hurry, and hurry!
In order to meet the production needs, from night shift to middle shift to morning shift, sleep was less than 10 hours in two consecutive days! The chaotic schedule made workers difficult to sleep and to hold the spirits at work (this also leads to safety issues). We went through such pain every day.
My friend Lao Wang said that he had wanted to leave the place many times, fleeing from this inhuman management and poor working conditions. But in the factory life for more than ten years, except a sick body, he had nothing left. He does not know where to go when he leaves the factory. As the pillar of his family, he can’t stop earning money.
However, the long service years and the extra effort cannot stop the company’s rejection of the old staff. In the eyes of the company, employees are not as precious as machines! When the machines break down, they repair them; but when the employees’ bodies deteriorate, the company severs the relationship and sweeps the workers out.
machines running 24-hour a day
switches being pushed constantly
numbers flickering on the production board
bank cards saving for our parents’ medical bills
tear drops from our children
We have distorted vertebrae, injured muscles, deafening ears
But we cannot be:
enjoying justice and freedom
We shift day-n-night to maintain the machine constantly roaring
We’re sleepless to make profits and parasitic life for the boss
We bear the hardship to get the parasite’s arrogance
We work hard but getting no respect and right!
A friend said that complaint is useless and bad days are endless, and you can live happily without thinking too much. But I can’t help typing these “meaningless” words in the deadly nights. This is my daily life as a worker, and it is also the daily life of thousands of workers. Male, female, laughing, fat, anemic, many years at work, two years still on probation, fingers-broken, abortion-scared…
Until one day, we can’t work any more, the traces of our work and life will be erased, replaced by another batch of fresh blood, who will continue to repeat this monotonous cycle.
Fight for a change
We can’t just complain.
There is sorrow, anger, and the pain for the loss of “dignity and rights as a human being”!
Here we also see ambition, hope, optimistic spirits in the hard-working people!
We need a change here, and we are dying to make a change here!
At the end of March 2018, the annual wage and year-end awards collective negotiations began. In previous years, our employee representatives were appointed by the chairman of the pro-company union. This year, the employees at the production site decided to use their democratic rights and elected me to negotiate for ourselves.
The process of becoming a representative is very difficult. The factory and their favored union have given me harsh time. They have always liked the obedient puppets, and they have instinctive hostility towards the bottom-up “employee election”!
With the trust and support of the workers, I became a representative and made a survey to collect employee opinions. However, immediately I was reprimanded by the company’s leadership for raising the salary expectations ‘too high’; the union leaders warned me of my “proper position”; being warned of hurting the interests of senior managers; being criticized for being aggressive, extreme, and immature……
All of these is just because I took the first step as the negotiating representative in accordance with relevant laws and regulations!
Ok, I’ll be extreme once to get rid of the chains constricting our workers!
Boss’ running dogs know well how to violate the laws and attack me with ‘bribery of elections, foreign intervention, and leaking secrets’. My overtime rights have been denied, working with front-line workers has been banned. Slander, threat, intimidation… the tricks are endless! Their purpose is only one, to suppress me and threaten all on-site employees.
On May 28, 2018, in the early morning, the pro-company union committee held a secret meeting. They bypassed the representative assembly and directly revoked the qualification of my representative status. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the company gave me the punishment on the grounds of my attacking the supervisors and violating the regulations. Four o’clock, the notice of penalty dismissal was sent to me, the company unilaterally announced the termination of the labor contract with me.
The ‘official union’ and the company are tied together in profit-seeking, and claim their absolute control over workers.
’The bloody sweatshop’ are not strange words to people. During the 40 + years of ‘reform and opening up’, the small greedy bunch have drained the blood of workers to build themselves into the rule of law in China. Who is the master of the country? What are the democratic rights, personal freedom, and justice?…
For me, the loss of the company’s employee status is not the end of the world. The factory’s door has been closed to me. There will be pioneers and followers who dare to say no to the bosses and dare to defend their rights.
Workers who wake up in a nightmare are reluctant to go back to the dark night.
Once they are used to standing up to make a living, they’ll never kneel down again.
From a student to a worker, from an ordinary worker to a worker’s representative, I am more and more determined to fight for a change!
This is my choice, which will be many followers’ choice!