The recruiter for the plastics factory was seated outside the main gate of the industrial park, amidst the red confetti remains of firecrackers that had done their job announcing the opening of business for the New Year. The recruiter had a clipboard in hand and lots of little strips of paper. All she asked was: “a photocopy of your ID?” No medical card, no form. I probably could have even gotten away with not showing her my ID card. Got hands? You can work. Getting work these days is a lot more formal that it was years ago. It used to be that you could get into any small factory without a hint of an ID. But now many factories in the several-hundred-worker range are stricter about these things. Tightening governmental regulation has at least had this impact, and many workers know that having an employment contract is to their benefit.
But the little slip of paper the solicitor handed me, with a time-to-report hastily scribbled on it, told me legality was not something I should expect here. “Are you sure?” she added. “Plastics is tough work. Don’t start and then just quit.” Even though this was exactly what I planned to do, I promised her I could take it. This completed my job application. I was signed up to start on the night shift that night.
That night at 7:45 sharp, I showed up at the gate of the industrial park, only to be told to go inside and find the other set of gates to my factory’s complex-within-the-complex. The light was on in the gatekeeper’s booth, but the gatekeeper had wandered off somewhere, possibly into a corner to snooze or into the factory to chat with and distract another worker. I lingered by the gate. When the guard came back, he took the little slip of paper and gave me a punch card in exchange. The little parking space between the two factory buildings remained empty but for me and the guard until nearly the stroke of eight. A gaggle of young men shuffled in, along with three middle-aged women and one young woman who looked like she was just out of school. There were maybe twenty of us total, roughly a quarter of a full shift. That meant tonight, we would have overtime for sure.
A normal shift at this factory would have 80 people, night and day together making for 160 employees – a tiny factory by Shenzhen standards. The returning workers slouched and dragged on cigarettes as they slumped in through the gate. One ran in, only to inform everyone that he was calling in sick to hang out with his girlfriend, and then ran out again. Another hollered in the direction of his receding shadow: “Just don’t show up! Why show up looking fine to tell everyone you’re sick?” While we waited, people caught up on each other’s lives, asking about home and the New Year’s holiday, the older women mingling without distinction with the boys.
Finally a slightly pudgy man, young but older than most of the male workers, came out and called everyone to attention. The young men took their time stamping out their cigarettes and slouched into a line. As the shift supervisor began to call off assignments, the women listened patiently and dutifully headed for their positions, but the collective groans issued from the young men. The supervisor hardened his soft voice and read off his list. Each young man slowly, and with a good few moments of hesitation, peeled off from the meeting to take up his position. It didn’t promise to be a productive night tonight.
Being the only one new to the factory that night, I was last to be given my assignment. No one asked me questions while I waited with them for the shift to begin. “A lot of people leave,” I heard more than one person say later. Few think you’re going to stay when you start, especially if you’re a young woman. It’s not worth their time to talk to you. The shift manager took my ID card. I’ll give it back to you at the end of the shift, he promised. He then instructed me to come with him, and I followed him into the hall of clattering and smashing machines.
A plastics factory is a smelly place. You catch the whiff of it from far away, and inside, the smell is overpowering. It is also a noisy place, where machines two times your height mix sacks of powdered resin in their bellies and churn out hot plastic that metal molds then smash into shape. There were two rooms with about forty machines each in this side of the factory, consisting primarily of two types: the churn-and-smash machines that humans aid by keeping the pieces moving into their proper containers, and the refining machines that aid human hands in polishing and cutting details. The rooms were nearly empty that day, so I would walk past several rows of machines before I finally spotted a human being. They put me on a churn-and-smash—the easy, low-skilled work. I was tucked into a corner where I could see nobody else at all. All I had to do was move plastic pieces from the place where the machine spit them out, and sort them into 8 differently sized categories. Keeping up with the machine was not hard, per se, but it required constant attention. Distraction for more than a minute or two would lead to an annoying build-up that would take many minutes of rushing to sort out. The shift manager had one of the women teach me. She did so impatiently, probably anticipating that I would leave and waste her effort, and then wandered off to do her own work.
The smashing sounds of the machine pieces were grating at first, then monotonous, and then at some point became meditative. With the nearest other person working several rows away, it was only when my mentor came to check up on me that I had any chance to talk. Even then though, shouting over the roar of the machines made conversation basically impossible, and my mentor did not seem eager to chat. She had been at the factory two years, and thus far had no intention of leaving. At some point they switched my first mentor out for the fresh-out-of-school-looking girl, who drifted over to my position much more often than my first mentor had. My first impression of her was she was a pretty, delicate thing. Petite with hair dyed a light brown, absorbed in her phone as she strolled over in my direction. A young man moving materials past my station bantered with her as he passed. She ignored both me and the work while she chatted with him, and he pulled out some latest QQ message on his phone for her to laugh at. The young man, who had worn a stern and distracted expression all the previous times he had passed my station, was now all smiles. I thought of a story I read once, of a village beauty—“the one who picks flowers,” as they say in some dialect—recruited to help staff a coal mine canteen. The fare remained as bad as before, but the complaints disappeared, and the men, who could not satisfy their stomachs, at least satiated their eyes. My new mentor was the factory flower. She did not appear to have any specific assignments, and would stroll about with her phone in her hands and her eyes glued to it, helping where she was needed. She was 18. This was her first job, indeed just out of school, and she had been here about half a year. She had a contagious smile, once you got her attention and coaxed it out of her. She confessed when I complained about the smell growing ever more odious that for her first month in this factory the smell made her want to puke every day. Eventually the feeling would go away, she assured me.
Four hours passed, and the time for our meal break arrived. One 45-minute break for the entire night, then work straight through till 8 in the morning. Half of us were let off for the first break, while the other half kept working. It was too soon after the new years for the nighttime food stalls to have come back to the area, so the boys who went out looking for food came back empty handed, or with two vacuum-sealed soy sauce eggs from the nearest convenience store. I’ll just hold on till the morning, one insisted. Those of us who were not interested in food or had already given up the search perched on the curb outside the factory gates, leaning back against the wall. One of the woman workers sitting next to me was having a hard time adjusting back to the night shift, and chatted on and off with the young man next to her as she tried unsuccessfully to get some shuteye. The young man, who had been out enjoying his last day of the New Year’s break and so had not slept before work, played video games on his phone to stay awake. Most of the returnees on my shift had been here two or three years, I learned. When I asked why they stayed, no one had anything particularly good to say about the factory, but to them it seemed all the same. Why not stay? Save yourself the trouble of looking for another job. The unsaid reason, for both the young men and the older women, was that other jobs were not as easy for them to find as they were for girls. I assumed it was also that here people at least knew each other. They covered for each other calling out sick, and snuck in slivers of conversation with each other in corners where no one was looking.
The second half of the night, my machine started jamming. Every so often, the supervisor would come over the fix it, climbing up onto the machine and clinking around its open bowels. During one of these repair sessions, I learned he had been at the factory 11 years: his first and only job. He was not yet 30. At the age of 17, he had come out to join his mother, who was already working at the factory. Neither of them ever switched jobs. Mother and son had spent their entire working lives away from home in this two room space.
Shift supervisor was the highest level of shopfloor management in this tiny factory. Beyond that were the upper management and the boss. My shift supervisor was clear that there would be no more room for him to rise in the hierarchy. I asked why, when most people who come out to work switched jobs endlessly, he had stayed at this one for more than a decade. “Because,” he explained with a hint of both regret and resignation, “my mother and I had just come out from the countryside then. We didn’t know anything. This was all we knew.” My supervisors’ mother had worked at the factory until his child was born; then she went home to help take care of the baby. Now his wages, only slightly higher than those of regular workers, support his wife, child, and mother, all living at home. Even if eleven years on the same factory floor had left him weary, now there was no choice. He had to stay for the money. There was not only the problem of his child’s immediate costs. Now there was schooling and all the other costs a child entails.
The hours from my conversation with the supervisor through the end of the shift passed in a slow drudge of cycles from the machine to the cooling table, with quick sweeping sessions in between to keep the floor clear of little plastic pieces that made perfect slipping hazards. I counted the hours as they passed every more slowly and my boxes of sorted pieces built up along the wall. Thinking about numbers helped, counting over and over again my progress in my head. So did shifting rhythms, ignoring the machine to sneak a peek at my phone for a while and throwing myself into a rush to catch up.
Periodically, the odious plastic fumes would grow stronger, when the machine next to mine would make a soft hissing noise and leak something terrible into the air. The only way to resolve the dizziness was to stand in front of the air conditioner (installed last summer, my young mentor told me, before that it had been much worse) and let the filtered air blow over my face and blow away the fumes. I left my station at one point to beg a mask, which it turned out they had, only tucked into the shift supervisor’s office, inaccessible to most workers. But even if the factory had handed them out, most workers I asked about the mask wouldn’t have worn one. They thought it was strange I would want to wear one, which tended to get suffocating and sweaty in a matter of hours. The other workers bore the fumes without complaint.
Near the end of the shift I left early, citing the terrible smell that made all new workers dizzy to inhale. The other workers watched in amusement but not surprise.