The Life and Resistance of a Chinese Worker

One worker's tale of exploitation and fighting back in the new China.

Under China’s labor management system, independent unionism is strictly banned, and the state’s official trade union body monopolizes worker representation. That means that all of China’s 806,498,521 workers are barred from forming independent organizations to agitate for their interests — in an economy where the poorest 25 percent of households own just 1 percent of the country’s total wealth, and where long hours, safety hazards, and authoritarian management define life in the factories.

This official antagonism has not stopped the emergence of workers’ resistance. The number of strikes has been increasing over the past two decades, and as Eli Friedman wrote last year, “on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.” Workers’ rights NGOs, while operating from a distinct disadvantage, have become increasingly involved and visible.

The Chinese state denies the legality and even existence of these growing strikes. Thus the landscape of coverage and analysis has been sparse.

China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance has arrived to fill that gap. It was compiled by Chinese university students, workers, and activists who embedded themselves in workers’ communities and workplaces, hoping not only to record their stories but to outline a roadmap of resistance to other workers.

The following excerpt serves both as a record of one person’s working life and of a particular strike in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen; its underlying causes, how workers developed a consensus about what to do and what to demand, and its ultimate outcome.

It both encapsulates the extraordinary circumstances ordinary Chinese workers face and shows the transformative potential of China’s expansive labor unrest.

I am from Guizhou Province and was born in 1980. I am the third of six children in my family. I left home to find work because I had little education and my family was poor.

At first I did well in primary school, scoring 80 percent or 90 percent in exams. So I skipped a grade, but my scores started to slide. In those days I had to work from 5 AM until school started at 8 AM. It was very tiring. I dropped out in fifth grade. I also felt that there was too much of a burden on my mother. I therefore did not want to continue schooling, but rather try to support my younger sister’s studies.

After I dropped out of school I secretly got a job in a local coal mine, where I was paid 450 yuan for fourteen days’ work. One day, at 8 AM there was a methane gas explosion, and four of us were buried more than twenty meters underground. Rescuers dug toward us from outside, and we dug toward them from inside. We had no food, and the digging was exhausting. It was after 5 AM the following morning that we were finally rescued.

All four of us had injuries. I had been struck by a rock on the back of the head. Another person’s arm was broken, a third person had some flesh torn from his back, and the fourth person had been struck by a rock on the forehead. Fortunately, none of these injuries was serious.

The boss paid our medical expenses, but gave us no compensation. My nephew held the boss’s only child, a three-year-old boy, out of a fourth-floor window and threatened to drop him if the boss didn’t pay up. The boss hastily agreed. I received fifty yuan, and the others received a hundred yuan each.

In 1996 I left home in search of work. I first went to Hainan Island to look for my elder brother who was there, but I couldn’t find him. I had to sneak across to the island.

I spent a miserable New Year alone living in a brick factory. I told the boss that I would eat at his place and I would work for him after the New Year. He said it didn’t matter and I could eat with him as long as I liked. The boss needed employees then, and I suppose he thought I could help out. I was sixteen years old, and I couldn’t actually do much work.

On the third day after the New Year I ran away, and found my older brother the following day. He had a child who was just six months old, and I looked after him until he was eighteen months. Then I got a job on a banana plantation. I helped with the weeding, spraying the banana crop, and generally looking after the trees. My monthly salary was 400 yuan for eight-hour days. I worked from dawn to dusk, and grew vegetables for myself and my brother to eat. I also raised more than forty chickens. In this way I was able to save 300 yuan a month to send home.

In 1999 I went to Shenzhen. I didn’t originally intend to go there, but my older sister persuaded me to go, saying that you could earn 600 yuan a month. I thought that wasn’t bad, so I went.

In 2000 I couldn’t find a job. Apart from meals, I didn’t dare leave the house because my identification card had not been processed and I was afraid of getting picked up by the police for having no temporary residence permit. Not having an identification card was one problem; another was that one needed personal connections to get a job. I tried many places, but couldn’t find anything. I was checked for my temporary residence permit many times, and I met both good and bad people. Once I met a person from my hometown who took pity on me and gave me ten yuan to buy food.

On another occasion my nephew and I were stopped on a bridge by a police patrol. My nephew ran away, but it cost my relatives fifty yuan to get me released. Another time I was arrested with six or seven others and they demanded 200 yuan. We protested that we didn’t have that much money. In fact, we all had a bit of money, and I had hidden 50 yuan in my socks. Anyway, they finally had us weeding a flowerbed. When we had finished weeding and realized that there was nobody watching us, we ran away.

In 2000 I handed over 1,000 yuan to get a job at K Factory. It is a Hong Kong–invested company that made electric toothbrushes, foot-massage basins, electric cookers, and the like. It had a workforce of more than eight thousand.

The employment arrangement was working for twenty-six days a month, eight hours a day, for a basic wage of twenty-three yuan a day. There were two shifts, and mealtimes were counted as overtime. We got a new work uniform every six months for free. Management issued one bag of laundry powder and a pair of gloves every month. At that time I got to know a man from my hometown, and he had some connections with both the police and some of the company’s managers.

He made money by introducing people to the factory. The K Factory never recruited workers directly, it got them all through this guy and another person from Sichuan.

As a result, most people at the factory came from Sichuan or Guizhou Province. Others were from a couple of cities in northern Guangdong Province, and were also introduced to the factory by their fellow townspeople. Basically there was no way to get a job there by oneself. I heard that people who got into the factory on their own had all been fired.

I worked hard there, and was soon promoted to become the head of my work team and later section head. Because I didn’t have much education, management provided me with an assistant. In that factory the head of a work team was in charge of sixteen machines, and each machine had two or three people tending it. A section head supervised several work team heads.

Secretly Planning a Strike

At that time the canteen food situation was very bad. We often found insects in the rice. I once bit into one, and never wanted to go to the factory canteen again. But after eating instant noodles for three days, I was driven back to the canteen.

Another problem was that the factory charged us twenty cents for a bucket of hot water. That came to twenty or thirty yuan a month. Everybody was dissatisfied with this.

On one night shift five work-team leaders (two men and three women) met to discuss going on strike. They came to me, and we went into the office to talk. Three or four assistants saw us and wanted to join. We discussed blocking a national highway and envisaged what kinds of difficulties could crop up and how to handle them:

  • If the police, beat, injure, or kill any of our people we should handle the situation together.
  • If any of us falls down while we are blocking the road we should immediately pick him/her up, otherwise he/she might get trampled on, possibly fatally.
  • If the organizers of the strike are discovered or if there are other problems, the two male work-team leaders shall shoulder the penalty. After the strike is over, an appeal will be made for donations to compensate them.

As it turned out, what we had imagined beforehand closely corresponded to what actually happened. In addition, we discussed whether we wanted to let everyone else who worked at the factory know what we were planning. In particular, we did not want those ass-kissers to know, in case they leaked the plan. If we mishandled the situation, we could lose our livelihood.

At the time there were two shifts. The assistants and the work-team leaders jointly printed a number of flyers, which read, “Tomorrow at 8 AM converge on the national highway!” Some work-team leaders told their people to stop work for ten minutes. More than three hundred workers pasted up flyers, covering four machine shops. They even stuck them up at the boss’s office.

When people asked what this was all about they were told that the office had arranged it. When the workers came to ask how we had arranged it, we didn’t dare explain in detail. We only said we should all go to the national highway and create a disturbance to demand better conditions from management. From the point of view of safety, if anyone fell down she was to be instantly picked up. We didn’t dare explain too clearly in case the action failed and the workers blamed us organizers.

Secretly Planning a Strike

The Course of the Strike

The next morning after the night shift finished, we streamed toward the factory gate, taking the security guards completely by surprise. We pushed the security guards aside and forced open the gate. The guards, fearing violence, locked the gate behind us. With banners at the front, we headed straight for the national highway and completely shut it down.

Most of the workers were keen to see the uproar, and many did not know the purpose of the rush to the national highway. They saw people running toward it and followed them. It was said that the drivers who were stopped by the blockade were not resentful or upset. Some on a stopped bus slept, while others climbed down and smoked.

There was trouble at the start of the demonstration when four patrolling officers saw us pouring onto the national highway, and shouted, “What are you doing?” They came up and started beating people with their truncheons. They injured some young women, who started biting their assailants. One patrolling officer was bitten on the face. There weren’t too many of us young men, and we were scattered throughout the melee. So we couldn’t bring our full force to bear.

There were too many people involved in the chaos, and a dozen or so were injured. Some of the injured were trampled on and hurt. The people in the middle were continuously being pushed around. Eventually, firefighters, public security officers, and even some local policemen came. Police cars were parked four hundred meters away, but we didn’t see anyone with guns. Because there were so many workers there, they would not be able to do much if someone grabbed their gun. Officials from the labor bureau turned up with money to send the injured to the hospital for treatment.

After the police arrived they began pushing us to the side of the road. They didn’t hit us, but used their truncheons to form a solid wall pushing us back. The front line was formed of women who didn’t dare to resist. Had they started to hit people we probably wouldn’t have been able fight back properly against policemen who had professional training. After two or three hours we had been gradually forced to the side of the road. Then we all trickled back to the factory.

Back to the Factory and Negotiations

Those of us who had blocked the road were all night-shift workers. There were some people on the day shift who didn’t know what the fuss was all about but nevertheless joined in.

Two thousand factory workers had been locked in their dormitories by the local police. There was a policeman at every gate and staircase, probably about four hundred altogether. The young women were particularly angry. Anything they could get their hands on in their dormitories they threw around, throwing some at the policemen. Some four hundred to five hundred workers went to the canteen and dumped all the food for more than eight thousand people on the floor.

When we returned from blocking the road one of the managers bawled through a loudspeaker, “If anybody has a grievance, speak out!” He then demanded that we send a delegation for negotiations. For the time being we selected a young man who was the head of the factory personnel department, a man of some education, to represent us.

Since everybody was in favor, he had no choice but to comply, and the boss asked him to come and negotiate. A pay raise was the first item for discussion. The head of the personnel department asked us what our demands were. The people in front said that they wanted a wage increase, and the people behind shouted their approval.

The head of the personnel department then passed this information on to the manager. The manager offered an increase to twenty-five yuan a day and asked whether we would accept it.

Then the issue of hot water was brought up. The manager said he didn’t know that we had to pay for hot water, and immediately promised that we would get it free from then on. He admitted that there was a problem with the canteen food and promised that from then on we could choose to eat in the canteen or not. Those who didn’t eat in the canteen would not be charged for canteen food.

When we returned to our workplaces nobody did any work that day. The work-team leaders called a meeting. The manager did not intervene, but attempted to persuade the work-team leaders, who in turn tried hard to convince the other employees.

On the evening of the day of the strike we got extra food, with plenty of meat dishes. Instead of the usual two dishes, we got four dishes. On the third and fourth days we got a bottle of cola and two apples each. Also on the day of the strike, the manager sent office managers to look after the young women who were recovering from their injuries in the hospital. When their injuries were healed they were reinstated at the factory and received better treatment. None of them wanted to leave.

Results of the Strike

After the strike, conditions at the factory definitely improved:

  • Food hygiene in the canteen was improved. There were no more insects in the food. There was a fifty yuan reward for every insect found in the food. When a female worker found an insect in her food a security guard took a photo of it, and the same afternoon she was told to go and pick up 50 yuan.
  • Whereas previously money was deducted from our wages for canteen meals whether we ate them or not, now we were not charged for meals we didn’t eat.
  • Hot water was now free of charge.
  • The daily wage was raised from twenty-three yuan to twenty-five yuan, and the twenty-six-day working month was reduced to twenty-two days.

A Japanese manager was brought in, who put a stop to eating fruit and consuming drinks in the workshops. This was because bits of fruit and drops of drinks on the floors attracted mosquitoes and flies, there by affecting the product. In addition, the dormitory floors were only swept once a week.

Because the workers under the striking work-team leaders understood the situation well, they were in the forefront when it came to blocking the national highway. They were also the first to come forward when the manager called for negotiators.

Some work-team leaders and office assistants stuck to their work and refused to join the road blockade. When two male work-team leaders were arrested in their office, more than a thousand workers surrounded the police cars that came to take them away.

But they eventually took them away anyway. When we went back to the factory we refused to start work again for another two days.

The manager asked the police to release the arrestees. When they were released the factory dismissed them without pay. Almost every worker contributed five yuan to compensate the two strike leaders who had organized the strike. Those who did not contribute would be looked down upon.

The involvement of three women work-team leaders and office assistants was kept secret so they were not arrested. Later, they left the factory one by one perhaps because they were afraid. I also left to look after my wife. A general manager with many years of experience also resigned voluntarily because of the strike.

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Hao Ren worked for a labor NGO in China's Pearl River Delta until 2010, and has since supported herself by working in factories throughout coastal China.

Zhongjin Li is a PhD candidate in the department of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Eli Friedman is the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. He teaches at Cornell University.

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