Factory Stories: Looking back on twenty years in factories in Shenzhen

by Hao Ren (Factory Stories #1, January 2012)

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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 tigers 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 then 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, 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 then 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.


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