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Few Protections for China's New Laborers

Washington Post  |  May 13, 2007  |  Share

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 13, 2002; Page A01

SONGGANG, China -- On the night she died, Li Chunmei must have been exhausted.

Co-workers said she had been on her feet for nearly 16 hours, running back and forth inside the Bainan Toy Factory, carrying toy parts from machine to machine. When the quitting bell finally rang shortly after midnight, her young face was covered with sweat.

 Li Chunmei--credit Washington PostLi Chunmei stands in her impoverished hometown of Xiao'eshan before she traveled to Songgang to work in a toy factory. (Family photo)

This was the busy season, before Christmas, when orders peaked from Japan and the United States for the factory's stuffed animals. Long hours were mandatory, and at least two months had passed since Li and the other workers had enjoyed even a Sunday off.

Lying on her bed that night, staring at the bunk above her, the slight 19-year-old complained she felt worn out, her roommates recalled. She was massaging her aching legs, and coughing, and she told them she was hungry. The factory food was so bad, she said, she felt as if she had not eaten at all.

"I want to quit," one of her roommates, Huang Jiaqun, remembered her saying. "I want to go home."

Finally, the lights went out. Her roommates had already fallen asleep when Li started coughing up blood. They found her in the bathroom a few hours later, curled up on the floor, moaning softly in the dark, bleeding from her nose and mouth. Someone called an ambulance, but she died before it arrived.

The exact cause of Li's death remains unknown. But what happened to her last November in this industrial town in southeastern Guangdong province is described by family, friends and co-workers as an example of what China's more daring newspapers call guolaosi. The phrase means "over-work death," and usually applies to young workers who suddenly collapse and die after working exceedingly long hours, day after day.

There has been little research on what causes these deaths, or how often they occur. Local journalists say many of them are never documented but estimate that dozens die under such circumstances every year in the Pearl River Delta area alone, the booming manufacturing region north of Hong Kong.
china map

The stories of these deaths highlight labor conditions that are the norm for a new generation of workers in China, tens of millions of migrants who have flocked from the nation's impoverished countryside to its prospering coast.

In an historic shift, these migrant workers now number more than 200 million by some estimates, more than the 80 million employees working in China's shrinking state industries.

These new workers are younger, poorer, and less familiar with the promises of labor rights and job security that once served as the ideological bedrock of the ruling Communist Party. They are more likely to work for private companies, often backed by foreign investment, with no socialist tradition of cradle-to-grave benefits.

The young migrants are also second-class citizens, with less access to the weak courts and trade unions that sometimes temper market forces as China's economy changes from socialist to capitalist. Most of all, they are outsiders, struggling to make a living far away from home.

'Go Out and Make Money'

Li Chunmei's home was the village of Xiaoeshan, a remote hamlet high in the mountains of western Sichuan province, 700 miles and a world away from the factories of Songgang, where she died. The area remains among the poorest in China, with no roads, one telephone and limited electricity and plumbing.

There are no tractors, just oxen, a few primitive tools and peasants who till the earth with their hands. Few residents can read a newspaper, and fewer still speak the national language, Mandarin. Traveling there entails a hike through fog-shrouded mountains, along narrow paths that resemble muddy balance beams.

China map--credit Washington Post

Li Chunmei was the second of five children born to parents who squeeze out a living from this rough terrain, farming small plots of land on terraces carved into the mountainside. Day after day, they climb up and down the mountain, tending to scattered patches of wheat and rice.

"This is a poor village, and all the parents here want their children to leave for the cities as soon as possible," said Li's father, Li Zhimin, sitting inside a house he built out of packed dirt. "The sooner they go, the sooner they can help support the family."

The economics are simple, residents said. People in Xiaoeshan eat most of what they grow, and by selling the rest they earn an average annual income of about $25 each. But local officials demand about $37 per person in taxes and fees. Several peasants who refused to pay last year were arrested.

Residents say there is only one way to survive: Pull the children out of school, and later send them to find work in faraway cities.

Li took his eldest daughter, Li Mei, out of school in the third grade, before she learned to write her name properly. Li Chunmei left school in the third grade, too. The girls were put to work farming and feeding the livestock.

When Li Mei was 15, she boarded a bus to Shenzhen, the special economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong.

"Our family was having difficulties," she said. "I wanted to support myself and earn money to help my parents. I wanted to help keep my other sisters in school."

Two years later, Li Mei returned home with more than $100 in savings. Li Chunmei was 15 then, and she announced she was ready to join her sister in the city. The family needed the money, and she didn't want her father to work so hard, Li Mei recalled her sister saying.

At the end of the holiday, Li Zhimin accompanied his daughters on the long walk through the mountains to the nearest bus station. Li Chunmei was crying quietly, he recalled.

"Of course, I was worried, . . . but I told her not to cry," her father said. "I told her, 'There's no reason to cry. Go out and make money.'

"I told her, 'It's bad luck to cry.' "

The Worst Job

The ride lasted three days and three nights.

When they reached the elevated expressway between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Li Chunmei caught her first glimpse of the factory complexes of the Pearl River Delta, her sister said. Drab, concrete dormitories line the road, decorated only by lines of laundry hanging from window to window. Late at night, passing motorists can peer through the factory windows and see rows of young women hunched over machines, working under florescent lights.

The Li sisters disembarked in Dongguan, a fast-growing city of 9 million residents, of whom more than 7 million are migrant workers. Li Mei had spent the past two years there, moving from one toy factory to another, and she had a job waiting. She said it didn't take long to arrange one for her little sister, too.

But Li Chunmei's first year in the factories ended abruptly when a motorcycle struck her and broke her leg while she was crossing the street. Her father said he traveled to Dongguan and took his daughter home to recuperate.

When she returned more than a year later, at the age of 17, Li Chunmei settled in Songgang, a satellite town northwest of Shenzhen where her sister had found work with a Korean toy manufacturer, Kaiming Industrial Ltd. Sister helped sister again, and Li Chunmei landed a job there, too.

In the two years before her death, friends and relatives said, Li worked in three different plants that produced stuffed animals, one run by Kaiming and two others that regularly received orders from the company.

Songgang is dominated by sprawling, fenced-in industrial complexes that produce all manner of clothes, toys and electronic goods for world markets. In the evenings, after quitting time, groups of young men and women stroll through the town, their factory ID tags pinned to their uniforms, time cards tucked in shirt pockets.

The town presented an exciting new world for a country girl, a place with streetlights and mahjong parlors, and off-key karaoke songs drifting through the warm air. But friends and co-workers said Li rarely ventured outside the factory gates.

Inside, life followed a rigid routine, co-workers said. Li was out of bed by 7:30 a.m. and in uniform and at her post by 8. At noon, she could take 90 minutes for lunch and a quick nap. At 5:30 she had 30 minutes for dinner. Overtime began at 6, and the quitting bell usually didn't ring until after midnight.

Workers said most of the factory's employees were assigned to assembly lines that stitched together stuffed animals. One worker attached an eye, and the next sewed on an ear. They spent the whole day sitting in front of their sewing machines, performing a single task again and again.

Li was a runner, co-workers said, always on her feet. When one worker finished a task, the runners picked up the toy and raced it to the next worker on the line. An average line had 25 workers and just two or three runners, and produced as many as 1,000 toys a day.

"She had the worst job, and the bosses were always yelling at her to go faster," said one worker on Li's assembly line, who asked to be identified by his surname, Liu. "There were no breaks, and there was no air conditioning." He added that the air was full of fibers, and with the heat from the machines, sometimes the temperature climbed above 90 degrees.

Runners required no special skills, and were paid the least, about 12 cents per hour, workers said. During the busy season, including extra pay for overtime, Li could earn about $65 a month.

But there were deductions. Workers said the company withheld about $12 a month for room and board and charged them for benefits they never received. For example, workers said they paid for the temporary residence permits they needed to live and work in Songgang legally, but never received them.

Managers also had the power to impose arbitrary fines, including penalties for spending more than five minutes in the bathroom, wasting food during meals and failing to meet production quotas, workers said.

Li often complained about the conditions, but she also seemed happy to be earning money, friends said. Once, she told them she was saving for her dowry.

"She was shy and honest, and the poorest of all of us," said Shen Xiuqun, a co-worker from Li's hometown. "She didn't have a boyfriend. She didn't like music. When all of us went out, she usually stayed in."

Another colleague, Zhang Fayong, recalled that Li once purchased a new dress, then refused to wear it. She said Li was amazed she had spent the money on it, and afraid she somehow might ruin it. After her death, her father found the dress among her belongings, folded and wrapped in plastic, he said.

He also found a stack of laminated snapshots, taken at local photo parlors for 50 cents apiece. They show Li with her friends, standing in front of false landscapes, dressed up in costumes: a military uniform, a traditional Chinese gown. She looks surprisingly young, just a teenager with long black hair, holding flowers, or saluting, or sitting with an ID tag pinned to her blouse.

She was smiling in only one picture.

'We Were Trapped'

Two months before she died, Li Chunmei was transferred from the main Kaiming factory to a new plant down the street, the Bainan Toy Factory, a featureless brown building. She and about 60 other Kaiming employees began making toys in a third-floor workshop under the supervision of her manager at Kaiming, Wu Duoqin, co-workers said.

There, conditions got worse. The peak season had arrived, and Wu pressed her employees to work longer and longer hours, sometimes past 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., workers said. They worked every day for more than 60 days.

"Everyone has to work overtime. You have no choice. Even if you're sick, you have to work," said one of Li's co-workers, who asked to be identified only by her surname, Zhao.

"But we don't even get paid for all of the overtime," she added. "For example, we might work six or seven hours extra, but then they just put down three or four hours on the timecards."

Less than a week before she died, Li begged her line manager for a day off, saying she was exhausted. He refused. Then Li skipped a night shift to catch up on sleep and was docked three days' pay, co-workers recalled.

Friends said Li often spoke of quitting and returning home. But the factory had not paid her for two months, and if she quit, she was afraid she might not get the money. Several workers were in similar situations. "We were trapped," said one, a 17-year-old girl from Sichuan province. "All we could do was keep working."

Many of the conditions described by Li's co-workers violate Chinese law. The minimum wage in Songgang is about 30 cents per hour. Overtime is limited in China to no more than 36 hours per month, and it must be voluntary. Arbitrary fines and pay deductions are prohibited. But enforcement of the law is weak.

"It may be illegal, but it's normal," said Wu Chunlin, 25, a migrant from Sichuan who said he has worked in a half-dozen different factories in the region over the past five years. "It's more or less the same wherever we go."

One Chinese journalist who has investigated working conditions in the Pearl River Delta said the problem is a "merger of interests" between local government officials and factory managers. The officials are eager to stimulate investment and generate taxes and bribes, so they are often willing to overlook labor rights and safety violations, he said.

Li Qiang, a former labor organizer in China who fled to the United States two years ago, described helping a group of 400 migrant workers in Shenzhen file a complaint about factory conditions, only to be turned away by local officials.

"They said, 'Go back to the factory.' They said, 'You should know better. It's like this everywhere,' " Li Qiang recalled. "The problem is a lot of these local officials have relatives or friends who are hired as managers in the factories. There's a network of connections, and migrant workers are on the outside."

In many ways, migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in China's working class. Under a government system intended to restrict population movement, migrants enjoy fewer rights and welfare benefits than workers in the old state factories, and police can arbitrarily arrest and repatriate them to their hometowns.

It is also more difficult for them to organize protests or follow through with a complaint in the slow-moving courts. "The state workers have been together a long time. Sometimes they grew up together, so it can be easier for them to stick together," Li Qiang said. "But migrant workers are from different places, and they don't have deep roots. They're easily scattered."

The migrant workers usually are less educated than their urban counterparts, and largely unaware of their rights. Very few belong to government-controlled trade unions; in interviews, many had never even heard of the Chinese word for labor union.

In the private factories where migrants often work, managers are primarily concerned about profit. By contrast, despite new market pressures, managers of state factories in China often resemble political leaders, responsible for the overall welfare of their workers.

Foreign outcry over sweatshop labor has led some multinational firms to monitor conditions in their factories and among their direct suppliers. But a system of subcontracting has undermined such measures.

For example, Kaiming Industrial receives orders to produce toys for a variety of brand-name companies, but their inspectors rarely visit the company and always announce visits in advance, according to a senior manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He said the factory maintains good labor standards. It can afford to do so, he said, because it farms out the least profitable and most difficult orders to factories with lower standards, including Bainan, and then just takes a commission. The Bainan factory, in turn, distributes some of its workload to subcontractors such as Wu Duoqin, the supervisor who employed Li Chunmei, he said.

"So you see, she wasn't working for us," he said. "It's not our problem."

A woman who answered the phone at the Bainan factory but refused to give her name said the same thing: "Yes, we heard about that. But she wasn't working for us. It's not our responsibility."

Wu Duoqin could not be located. Officials at Kaiming and Bainan said they had lost touch with her, and a phone number she once used was disconnected.

A Father's Sorrow

Immediately after learning of his daughter's death, Li Zhimin traveled to Songgang. For 28 days, he said, he tried to get someone to take responsibility for what happened.

The police sent him to the offices of the local labor bureau, which sent him to the Bainan factory, where managers refused to see him. Then he tried the district-level labor bureau, which sent him to the local commerce department and the Shenzhen city labor bureau.

Finally, police gave him a letter that said a district medical examiner had concluded Li Chunmei "suddenly died because of an illness while she was alive." There were no other details, and the local labor bureau declared her death "non-work-related."

Li said he was unhappy with the finding, but was helpless to do anything about it. Eventually, he said, Kaiming Industrial pressured Wu Duoqin to pay for his daughter's funeral, for the expenses he incurred while in Songgang and for his bus ticket back home. His eldest daughter, Li Mei, returned with him.

Now, the family is again struggling to make ends meet. Li Mei is planning to return to the factories next year.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


Read the NLC's 2002 Toy's of Misery, "Made in China" report

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