For all the English writings about Chinese migrant workers, only rarely have those workers’ own words been translated directly. Usually, these stories are available only in brief passages cited as evidence to support someone else’s agenda. In contrast, a vast body of nongmingong narratives has accumulated in Chinese, mainly compiled by academics and journalists, as well as a few labor activists. A group called Gongchao took the initiative of translating some of these narratives into German and other European languages starting in 2008, but English translators have been slow to catch up. Last year, Gongchao began translating narratives from the independent nongmingong magazine Factory Stories (Gongchang Longmenzhen) into English, giving us permission to publish four selections here. By the time this issue of Chuang goes to print, the first book-length translation of nongmingong strike narratives—collected by the Factory Stories group— will have been published by Haymarket Press: China on Strike: Narratives of Workers’ Resistance, edited by Hao Ren, Eli Friedman and Zhongjin Li.
Longmenzhen means “chatting” or “vivid stories” in Sichuanese. Hao Ren, the Sichuan native who edited the Chinese version of China on Strike, played a central role in starting the Longmenzhen group, the participants of which all work or used to work in the factories of the Pearl River Delta. After work or during holidays, they have been documenting and disseminating the stories of nongmingong who work day and night to fuel the Chinese growth engine, exposing its shadows and their denizens’ “vivid stories.”
Longmenzhen’s members all grew up during China’s integration into global capitalism in the 1990s. Workers from state-owned enterprises were laid off after privatization, and a rising number of peasants had to leave their villages to make a living in faraway factories. The latter is particularly evident in the Pearl River Delta, where private and foreign-invested factories were first established. Though the group members were each politicized in their own ways, they are all concerned with labor rights and resistance as an integral part of factory life. Most became interested in labor issues during university, some getting jobs with labor NGOs after graduation, while others had no interest in NGOs and went straight for factory jobs. After leaving the NGO world in 2010, they took a variety of factory jobs throughout coastal China. After thirty years of market reform, many economists had hailed rising productivity, while leftists often expressed sympathy for the suffering of workers. But the Longmenzhen group was frustrated by the absence of workers’ own narratives and analyses of factory life.
Since then the Longmenzhen group has been doing factory observations and worker interviews in order to systematically record and analyze the various methods capital uses to exploit, deceive and control workers. At the same time, they have looked at how workers have resisted these pressures, focusing on the lessons to be drawn from past experiences, whether success or failure. In many cases, they were not just interviewing striking workers, but also participating in collective struggles alongside them.
In addition to interviewing workers, the Longmenzhen group has organized reading circles, translated foreign pamphlets and established international exchanges (unusual in Chinese labor activist and leftist circles, which tend to be rather insular). In 2011 some members attended the fourth international assembly of ILPS (International League of Peoples’ Struggle) in the Philippines. There they had the opportunity to exchange experiences with local labor activists regarding working conditions, resistance to factory closures and working-class solidarity across borders. The following year they visited other parts of the Philippines and continued discussion about the economic context of worker resistance and its global implications. Based on information collected at this time, they wrote a book called Labor Movement in the Philippines: Past and Present, introducing historical examples of the movement and their lessons for Chinese workers.
In addition to the Philippines book and China on Strike, the Longmenzhen group has published eight issues of the magazine Factory Stories and another book called 2013: Factory Relocation and Strikes, with more writings in the works. While consciously focusing on printed media to facilitate the careful reading of in-depth material, they also maintain a blog—mainly for publicizing these underground publications—and individual members use other online platforms to publish briefer texts about ongoing struggles.
The politics espoused in these writings are quite rare in China. Certainly there has been significant discussion of labor issues from left perspectives online and in print. But much of the leftist writing in China is nationalistic and nostalgic, aimed at glorifying an imagined Maoist past in which the working class was held in proper esteem. Longmenzhen narratives do not lapse into longing for a rose-tinted past, but describe in blunt terms the brutality of working under capitalist conditions. There is no need to contextualize this brutality in terms of its implications for the “China dream” or any other ethno-national project.
It is also important to note that these magazines are meant for fellow workers rather than intellectuals or NGO-type activists. This is apparent in the content and style of the writing. While strikes are a common topic for Longmenzhen, there is also fastidious coverage of the seemingly banal details of daily life for migrant workers. At times, the style is a bit flat, but this is an accurate presentation of the quotidian: most of workers’ lives are consumed by the daily grind, only occasionally punctuated by collective acts of rebellion. This presentation is oriented towards showing other workers that their seemingly individual problems are in fact social in nature. This is an effort to establish the symbolic groundwork for a collective understanding of exploitation and domination—a necessary step for proletarian politicization, they believe.
Often the stories are not detailed reports but vague anecdotes where we seldom learn what kind of factory or even industry the author is talking about. This is not only to protect the authors, however, since it is precisely this vagueness and anonymity that give these anecdotes a universal feel. The authors often relate to specific situations as mere moments of abstract labor, drawing a picture of general conditions rather than giving details. If didacticism is one of their motives, then summing up an image of an abstract factory by relating common denominators of migrant workers’ lives could be understood as the teaching method.
But central to Longmenzhen’s project is also a chronicling of workers’ resistance. The intent behind such meticulous accounts is twofold: First, it serves to reaffirm the worthiness of such struggles. By committing these stories to paper, they may come to be seen by other workers as something worth emulating. While not necessarily exalting struggles that, it must be acknowledged, do not always succeed, they can serve as inspiration to others with similar grievances. Secondly, these publications are didactic in intent. Detailed strike accounts give workers some sense of what to expect during the course of collective action, how bosses and the police may respond, and what workers can do to increase their chances of victory. While most workers, particularly in the Pearl River Delta, have heard stories about strikes, the editors of the magazine have curated a set of case studies with the clear intent of inspiring further class struggle.
This effort has not been without its challenges, and the Longmenzhen group has been in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. A simple empirical account of life in China’s workplaces is considered politically sensitive—a strong indication of the Chinese Communist Party’s current political orientation. Nonetheless, the incredible dedication and perseverance of the writers and editors has resulted in an impressive track record of publication. Given their shoestring budget and ongoing repression, circulation remains limited. But for workers who do come into contact with these publications, it can be a deeply meaningful experience.
The idea to do a translation emerged from a group of international activists based in China, and the translation itself was a global process, with people in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America volunteering their labor. If these narratives of Chinese worker strikes can in any small way contribute to furthering global proletarian solidarity and resistance, the project will have been a success.
 Literally “peasant worker,” but nowadays mainly indicating the workers’ rural hukou (household registration status). See “Gleaning the Welfare Fields” and “No Way Forward, No Way Back” in this issue.
 They became disillusioned with NGO’s approach to dealing with labor disputes on a case-by-case basis. They also wanted more opportunities to meet ordinary workers and experience everyday life in factories.
Preface to Factory Stories, Issue 1, January 2012
Longmenzhen means chatting, telling stories, so [the name of this magazine] Gongchang longmenzhen means talking about what happens in factories. People who’ve never worked in a factory before often get it wrong and use stereotypes [to describe factory life]. Those who’ve experienced it and are familiar with life in the factory often think, “there’s nothing to talk about.” Although it’s a topic people often discuss with friends, relatives and other workers, it still seems mundane and trivial, something that doesn’t deserve to be publicly discussed; something you chat about in private and then forget.
But it’s precisely these trivial incidents and this mixture of feelings that make up workers’ living environment, that shape workers’ consciousness, and that trigger and influence workers’ action. Going further: the future of society is already hidden within these realities. Only when workers understand these real circumstances in their totality can we find a basis for collective exit from the present situation. The first step is to thoroughly and carefully survey, record and analyze the situation of the working class–that is, to obtain first-hand material.
Today, factory workers are the main creators of wealth in society. But since bosses hold the power within the industrial system, what social development grants to workers is poverty and disenfranchisement (although many workers from the countryside have improved their families’ economic situation through hard work and frugality). Commodity prices rise faster every year, but many workers make only enough to get by, or less. From the 2008 crisis until now, the gap between rich and poor has only increased.
But in these last few years, it is easy to notice a transformation of workers’ consciousness: they seem to be developing a more intense and conscientious awareness of their plight and demands, and they more often resort to actions creating more pressure on capital. The drive to control workers and oppose the improvement of workers’ conditions (including active meddling in legislation) shows an extreme level of concern among capitalists. Management personnel in every factory regularly talk about strikes and go-slows, while lawyers and experts in the field of industrial relations organize training courses on the topic… On the other hand, workers usually lack the advantageous circumstances and the self-conscious combativeness of their rulers. Of course workers also learn from struggling–they summarize the experience and communicate it with others. Usually scattered, they require more attention from those who wish to collect and arrange the records of these struggles in order to spread them among other workers.
The central goals of this publication are to develop a thorough understanding of the factory and workers’ real situation, to analyze the lessons gained from past and present struggles, and to spread information. We still believe that the power of the empty-handed working class is far greater than that of the whole propertied class. But it is also clear that we are standing at only the beginning of the road.
by “I Love Cilantro” (Wo Ai Xiangcai)
Working in the factory has turned me into a robot. I live a mechanical existence. Almost every day I repeat my role in the same scenes.
The alarm clock wakes me up at exactly 7:20 in the morning. I go to the toilet, wash my face, change my clothes, no time to brush my teeth, I take my key and run straight to the factory. I get to the canteen a bit before 7:40, find a bowl, and rush to the window where they serve food. The aunty on the other side of the window serves me a bowl of porridge and a pancake about as thin as paper. This is my breakfast. Because I can’t fill my stomach, and the canteen won’t give me an extra pancake, I often buy a couple of steamed buns on the street. It’s the only way I can make it until noon.
Our workshop is on the fourth floor. We make facemasks. Each work post has a production quota, determined by specialized employees who stand behind our backs, timing us with a stopwatch. They always try to raise the quota by counting more than we actually produce. Moreover, they do this in the morning when we have the most energy, forcing us to repeat that speed for 11 hours. Otherwise we don’t reach the quota and have to do unpaid overtime. Most workers can’t meet the monthly quota. Although the management in this workshop isn’t particularly strict, and you need no special permission for a leave of absence, everyone is self-conscious. Some don’t even go to the toilet—not because they don’t need to go, but because they’re afraid they won’t meet the production quota if they do. Most people wait until they finish their work, so the toilets are always packed at the end of a shift.
When it’s time for our break, the line leader gives the order to stop the line, then we queue up and wait for him to tell us when it’s OK to leave. We’re supposed to punch out one by one in an orderly fashion, but the queue tends to break up when we’re all eager to get to the canteen as quickly as possible, so the line instructors usually stand by the queue—supposedly to enforce discipline, but generally they just yell at us. By the time I finally punch out, change my overalls and shoes, and run down from the fourth floor to the canteen, it’s already packed with 200 people queued up in front of four windows. I grab a bowl, walk to the end of a queue, and then wait and wait, peeking into other people’s bowls to see what’s being served. When my turn finally comes up, I realize the dish I wanted is long gone, and all that’s left is the stuff that not only I but everyone dislikes. But I have no choice, so I take a few scoops of pickled vegetables to fill my stomach (and complain later). I often complain about the lack of decent food to my coworkers, but they blame me for running late, saying if only I hurried up there would be plenty to eat. Although I don’t argue, I’m always thinking that with a certain amount of people and a certain amount of food, it shouldn’t matter who arrives first or last; even if I came earlier, that would just mean someone else wouldn’t get to eat.
Although the food is bad, I have to eat something—I’m thinking about the five hours of work I have to do in the afternoon, so I manage to gulp it down somehow. The afternoon shift is the same as the morning one, an endless stamping of facemasks (that means welding together the mouth cover and ear straps). Eating dinner feels like eating a cloned version of lunch: everything is exactly the same. Sometimes I think my canteen fee is spent entirely on pickled vegetables—it’s not worth it, but there’s nothing I can do. Going outside to eat takes too much time, and I’m sure the street stalls are even less sanitary than the canteen. Although my coworkers sneer at hearing this, I keep hoping the canteen will improve.
After dinner, there are two more hours of overtime. This is the easiest part of the day, since we know it’s almost over, at least. As we get close to the end, everyone grows excited, as if we’re about to be “liberated.” That’s why we work really fast in the evenings and seem incredibly energetic. We’re finally done, freed, and after walking out of the factory gate, the fatigue weighing down my body unconsciously melts away into the noise of the commercial district. I also forget the repression of the shop floor, as if all that’s left is the unbearable physical exhaustion. Only then do I realize that I really spent myself in the workshop.
I repeat this kind of existence day after day, on the shop floor, unable to see the sun, seldom going to the toilet even once. It goes so far that I’m afraid the sunlight will hurt my eyes! Although this is just one day, perhaps this will be my entire life as long as I’m “affirming” my labor-power in the factory.
Looking Back on 20 Years in Shenzhen’s Factories
by Hao Ren
I was born in 1963. At 15 I finished junior high and left home to look for work. Since coming to Guangdong in ’92, I’ve worked in a lot of factories. I remember garment factories run by bosses from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guangdong, Fujian and even a few from Hunan. There were small differences between bosses from different places: Hong Kong bosses were a little more generous—I guess they had more money, so they treated you a bit better. But all bosses are pretty much the same. As they say, “Everywhere you go, all crows are black; as soon as you get out of a wolf’s den you’ll find yourself in a tiger’s mouth.”
The biggest cheapskates were the fucking Taiwanese bosses. They were the harshest managers. Can working for them even be called work? They would often insult and beat you, threatening to fire you the moment you disobeyed, or hitting you whenever things didn’t go 100 percent according to plan. But Taiwanese bosses weren’t just cruel themselves—they also kept brutal security guards. Hong Kong bosses also kept security guards, but they didn’t beat people, or at least not as often. So the Taiwanese bosses were the biggest tyrants.
Management has changed over the past few years. At least it’s become more humane. The other thing is, management personnel smartened up a little. They figured something out: that they too are only workers. In the past they all thought “I’m special, I’m this and that, I’m a manager.” But what happened when they got fired? They turned out to be no different from us. In the past, management personnel were all extremely stupid, doing all they could to kiss the boss’s ass and fuck with the workers just to keep their jobs a bit longer. They would think, I’m working on the free market now, there’s nothing I can’t take care of, so they hit the workers that much harder. Like the security guards for Taiwanese bosses: they would think, “I’m the shit, I work my ass off beating up people for the boss, I’m doing well aren’t I, the boss respects me.”
There are different reasons why today’s factories are more humane than before. The first major reason is that the government changed a bit. Secondly, there’s been some changes in publicizing legal knowledge. Third is that workers are starting to wake up. I myself am one of these workers. In the past there were many managers and bosses who would beat workers, some hitting so hard that they broke people’s arms and legs. You would see this quite often, but in the end they learned that it would only come back to them: when they came out of the factory, they would often be attacked by gangsters and vagrants. Now a lot of managers have finally come to understand how things work.
The bosses’ attitude towards workers has also changed due to pressure from different sides. One side is the government, the other is, well, “Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance.” I once had a really mean boss. He didn’t see those who worked for him as human beings, acting according to his whims. Eventually he was attacked with knives. I saw it clearly—I was there. They really fucked him up. They cut him everywhere, but finally he managed to escape. If he didn’t run they would have hacked him to death for sure. I was only a couple meters away. In the end they finally let him go. The workers hadn’t done anything like that before, and they didn’t want to cause a big stir—after all, they were afraid.
It probably started in second half of ’96 and ’97 when Hong Kong reunited with China: it was at that time that a lot of workers started publicly taking revenge on management personnel. Before that, a lot of the girls who were a bit better looking had to sleep with the boss whenever he wanted, the boss could do whatever he wanted, and this happened quite often. It was only in the ’90s that this kind of thing became less common, around ’96, at that time the environment really changed. In ’97 when Hong Kong returned, there were rumors that war was imminent, and a lot of bosses and workers fled home. Whenever you heard there would be fighting, it turned out to be just rumors, so the workers came back a few months later. In ’98 and ’99 people grew braver, and the rumors disappeared.
Wasn’t it in ’94 or ’95 that the government passed the labor law? There were already a lot of factories in ’96 with migrant workers, and in ’97 Hong Kong was reunited with China, so there couldn’t have been any big political changes. In ’98 the government started popularizing the labor law. But they didn’t really want to popularize or enforce it very much, and only a few people knew it existed, so it was basically useless.
As more and more factories opened up, [one could choose where to work and the attitude was] if they don’t need me here, I’ll just go somewhere else. Workers’ demands were realistic, and there wasn’t much repression from state authorities outside the factory. The late ’90s were harsh and all, but after working outside for a few years, you figured out how the world works and grew braver. Besides that, workers had certain technical skills. After working a few years you could become quite skilled. With skills it was easier to find work. When people have a little capital, they’re less afraid.
There weren’t many strikes at that time. Strikes didn’t become common until ’07 and ’08, and it was only in ’08 that they really rose in numbers. There aren’t many big factories here in Longgang, and the major strikes happened in 2008. This was because, for one, knowledge of the labor law and contract law had become widespread among workers, since both the government and NGOs were making a big effort to popularize them. I distributed a lot of leaflets at that time—every evening my colleagues and I would be handing out leaflets in the factory. Another reason must be that workers had become more educated. I worked in a shoe factory then, and I rarely worked overtime, so I had enough free time. There was a blackboard near the place where I lived, and it was there that we organized special trainings for workers about the labor law. We would do it once a week or every two weeks, a few times a month anyway. Each time over ten or even twenty-some people would come. They would then pass the knowledge on to their friends and acquaintances, each explaining it to the others.
At that time the specific reason for strikes was that, when companies terminated employment contracts, workers were denied severance pay according to seniority, so how could one not go on strike? I guess you could say I was also involved, that was at the end of ’07, and there were strikes almost every day. They happened in different industries, in all kinds of industries, and every day there were at least a few factories on strike. I saw many of these strikes with my own eyes: more and more people not going to work, blocking the factory gate or holding demonstrations in public squares. If you talked to the workers who participated in these strikes, you’d have to say that every strike was a success. Or at least that striking was better than not, since bosses were always made to pay for damages and had to pay the workers. At those factories where workers didn’t stir up trouble or strike, nothing much changed. The strikes mostly happened in big factories, with over 200 or 300 people. Yunchang, Dahua, Jinghong were all big factories that had more than a thousand people.
Layoffs and Labor Shortages
by Wang Xiaolin
In early , Ah-Ling came to the industrial area together with the [annual spring] tide of workers. The entrance to a village near a national highway was full of recruitment stalls. They came from nearby factories to recruit people. Ah-Ling carried her big suitcase to the stalls to see what all the fuss was about. The human resources personnel there were loudly introducing their factory’s salaries and benefits. Some were saying, “Our factory’s pay package goes up to 3,000 yuan, and we also have dormitories and a canteen.” Others promised, “If you’re interested we can send a car to drive you to the factory dorm right away.” Someone who was recruiting security guards started dragging away little Ah-Ling, saying that if she agreed to take the job she would get the easiest work imaginable – a job at a certain hospital where she would have both fun and lots of free time. The whole scene looked spectacular (as if a fat pig had just escaped from its sty), and it made people feel as if their social standing had suddenly risen.
Not long before that, almost all the news media were bellowing about the “shortage of labor” in the coastal industrial areas, exaggerating the whole thing without restraint. Everybody was saying this time salaries will go up for sure. Nonetheless, Ah-Ling soon discovered that, although the human resources staff at this “job fair” were shouting that “the monthly pay package is more than 3,000 yuan” and so on, when you looked at things more closely you realized that the basic wage was no higher than the legal minimum wage, and that the so-called “salary package” already included compensation for more than three hours of overtime per day.
After she spent some time looking for work, Ah-Ling slowly started to understand the so-called “labor shortage” issue. In the past, when there was not yet an “over-abundance” of bosses, there were plenty of workers and bosses could pick out whomever they wanted at will: young, unmarried, obedient, nimble-fingered girls. Slowly, these girls started turning into mothers. As the industry developed, there came to be too many bosses, and this made it more difficult to choose the workers they wanted. In that past, bosses did not hire male workers, but now they were “forced” to employ a certain number of men. Likewise, the acceptable age for workers gradually rose from 25 to 30, 35, 40 or even higher. Bosses unable to hire enough people started using more clever methods, such as trying to prevent workers from quitting. So when bosses complain about “the labor shortage,” they don’t mean a lack of people, but a lack of young, obedient, hardworking, agile, and female workers. This does not mean that mothers and men are becoming more highly valued. People who call this gender discrimination are right, but this kind of discrimination has nothing to do with so-called feudal mentality or outdated notions, since what are at stake are the bosses’ concrete interests. They want their horses to run, but they don’t want to feed them. Now when there are not enough healthy, strong, and tame horses, the bosses complain. And this has been resonating for years.
Ah-Ling decided to find an office job because office work tends to be easier than manual labor and allows more free time. She applied for this kind of job in many factories, but they all turned her down on the grounds that she “lacked experience”. Finally, Ah-Ling managed to get hired [for an office job] by some factory. It was not that they were so kindhearted that they took her in, but because she composed a CV claiming she had experience, and although she had never worked in an office before, she mastered her tasks in half a month. In fact most of the work is quite easy – though it can be a bit complicated, you just have to fake it for a while, and when you become familiar with the products and the work process, it turns out to be no big deal. The problem is that even in the conditions of a “labor shortage,” bosses are unwilling to spend additional money on training. They hate training unskilled workers and prefer hiring skilled people or even going to other factories to steal their skilled workers.
There was a lot of fuss about “the labor shortage” in Ah-Ling’s factory. What kind of shortage? Paint sprayers, unskilled workers, and office workers were being hired all year long. Spraying paint is poisonous, it smells bad and is hard work; unskilled labor takes a lot of physical strength. It took a lot of time to find people for these jobs and there were never enough people to do them. Office work was not so demanding, but the wages were lower (a new employee would get a monthly salary of 1,600 yuan and would have to do an hour and a half of unpaid overtime per day), so all the old employees left, and there was not enough new people to fill their posts. This made the human resources department head nervous as hell all the time.
Nevertheless, not long after entering the factory, Ah-Ling faced a “wave of layoffs”. By the end of the year, after the Christmas goods were exported, there was suddenly no more business for Ah-Ling’s factory, so they canceled overtime. To most workers who depend on overtime to make a living, this undoubtedly equals forcing them to quit. Many ordinary workers eventually decided to hand in their resignation. One would expect this to have made the boss happy, since it saved him a lot of money that would have otherwise been spent on compensation for laid-off workers. But on the contrary, he was not happy, since the reduction of ordinary workers meant an increase in the proportion of managerial staff. The boss ordered all departments to issue a list of the laid-off staff, lest the “ability of the managerial staff be called into question.” Ah-Ling’s department, which previously had over a hundred employees, lost over ten people, leaving 80-some, including four supervisors, two chief supervisors, and one manager. In order to prove his “managerial ability,” the manager submitted two lists of dismissed staff. Those dismissed allegedly received compensation worth three months of wages. It is worth pointing out that the people they wanted to lay off had all worked in the factory for more then a few years. There was even talk of an employee who had worked in the factory for 25 years who “decided” to quit and did not receive one cent of compensation.
This is how a “labor shortage” and layoffs miraculously appeared within one and the same factory.
Some say these layoffs were due to a bad economic situation, and that the boss suffered great losses. But everybody knows that during the period when they were making fortunes, bosses never increased wages of their own accord. Now that the economy is supposedly in a slump, this does not mean that the companies are losing money, but only that they are not making as much as before.
Having talked so much, I just wanted to explain one thing: it doesn’t matter whether the boss complains about a “labor shortage” or lays people off; in any case, it’s all about profit. The boss is weakest when there are fewer workers so he cannot choose and manipulate the employees at will. When business is good, the boss will talk about “good will and solidarity,” “treating the factory as a family,” and hard work; when business is bad, the boss has to “get through the winter,” so he is surely right to lay off workers, leaving them cold and hungry.
This is the boss’s logic.
Republished in Chuǎng, issue #1 (2016)