by “I love Cilantro” (Factory Stories #1, January 2012)
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 face masks. 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 face masks (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.