by Lang Zi (Factory Stories #3, May 2012)
A county town in Hebei province. Almost everybody is engaged in the standard parts industry. There are processing plants for semi-finished products, galvanizing plants, outlet stores for finished products, stores for products and all kinds of processing machinery, etc. In total, there are more than one hundred processing plants and outlet stores. Most of the factories have less than fifty employees, and the majority are private workshops with less than ten workers. Most are domestic customers. Basically, all factories have an outlet store for their products, i.e., shop in the front and factory in the back. All factories look more or less the same, just an unadorned factory building and an open or semi-open courtyard. Inside the factory building, machines and commodities are loosely spread out (there is no clear separation between factory and warehouse). Between the outlet stores there is a mix of small restaurants, small supermarkets, vegetable shops and other shops for daily necessities. The street is very crowded, with all kinds of three wheelers and electric pedicabs that move goods back and forth between the factories and stores. There are also transport companies, filling up large trucks that take goods into every part of the country (reportedly, every day at least 200 tonnes of goods are transported out of there).
Most of the bosses are locals, but there are also some from elsewhere (Wenzhou, Sichuan). Several bosses are [former] skilled workers who returned home after many years of work elsewhere and run the factories—alongside the local bosses—just by following the tide. Some factories have just one owner, and many have two or more owners. Many owners do not stay away from the production lines. Whenever there is a lot to do they get it done together with the workers. The investment in the factory outlet stores is smaller. Usually, just one person owns a store. The bosses of the factory outlet store are hardworking. If the factory is pushing for a deadline, they often work day and night. Generally, the factory provides no insurance, not even accident insurance. Workers have to buy insurance themselves. If they can save by not buying it, they do.
Many adverts for recruitment agencies, and introductions of acquaintances are posted at the factory gates, under the bridges which are busy with people and cars and on the walls along the streets.
Working times and wages
Usually, work starts at 7:30 a.m. and lasts until 12:00 p.m., then starts again at 1:00 p.m. and lasts until 6:00 p.m. The working time is ten hours. There are two kinds of workers, those paid by piece and those paid per hour. Neither have Sundays off, and they don’t have social insurance or just accident insurance the boss pays for. Workers have no contracts but normally the wage is paid on time. There is no minimum wage. After one day of work the workers get one day’s wage. There are many workers on piece-rates, and they usually earn 10 to 20 RMB more every day. For instance, in the same factory a piece-rate worker can earn 60, 70, 80 RMB, or up to 100 RMB, while workers paid per hour get 40 or 60 RMB less. In addition, mechanics and accountants are all paid per hour. The mechanics get at least 20 RMB more than ordinary workers, the accountants might have only 800 to 1,200 RMB a month.
The workers are more or less satisfied with the wage. Especially the more skilled among the piece-rate workers [mistake in Chinese text], who can earn 70, 80, or more than 100 RMB a day. Middle-aged women feel that this is already a lot. There is no day off, but sometimes, when the work is exhausting and they want to rest, the workers can take leave, take a walk through the town, or even return home. Usually the boss does not care too much. Who does not work doesn’t get paid. The work environment is quite relaxed. There is often nobody supervising, but in busy times the boss might increase the pressure a bit.
Food: Normally packaged food. In the morning and in the evening, rice soup, pickled vegetables, steamed buns; at noon stewed vegetables and steamed rolls. Accommodation: Usually it is free. The factory’s worker dormitories are located opposite the factory floors, in between, or above, inside a courtyard. They are quite spacious, but there are only a few single beds and even no tables. The outlet stores are usually two story buildings, with the living quarters on the second floor. The standard is not as high as in the city. For water, one needs to use a bucket, the toilets are very simple and crude, and there are no showers.
Most workers come from nearby towns and villages, and many are relatives of the bosses. The majority are middle-aged, and older men and women. There are also young people, as young as 15. Basically, everyone who is able to work can find a job in the factories. Besides, because they want to work a lot the older piece-rate workers earn more than the younger workers who are paid per hour.
Many of the machine operators have experienced injuries inflicted by the machines, for instance, broken or cut-off fingers, hair that got stuck in the machine and was pulled out, etc. Despite this, usually nobody pays for insurance.
There are relatively few conflicts. You only hear about some young workers who, unsatisfied with their low wage, smashed the boss’ air conditioning. Most of the older workers are relatively satisfied with the current situation of being able to earn money in the factories.