Factory Stories: Management in the Factory

by Mitu (Factory Stories, Factory Management, November 2014)


Factory management has many aspects: human (affairs), material, financial, production process and so on. What we want to talk about here are those regulations and managers that have an immediate relevance for workers.

Most people who have worked in factories have experienced this: the bigger the factory, the more rules it has and the more detailed those rules are. Generally speaking, it sounds true that workers need to respect certain rules in order to ensure normal operation of the factory, since, if regulations are not followed, if there is no order to personnel assignment, and materials are randomly placed, all kinds of confusion and even danger will result, and production will be unable to proceed smoothly. But in reality only a small proportion of these rules are required to safeguard the production process and worker’s safety, for example: that employees of each department start work according to schedule, that employees performing dangerous jobs wear the necessary safety equipment, that nobody smokes in warehouses and in the workshop, etc. But since all of these necessary rules are crafted unilaterally by the factory for it’s own benefit, all of the responsibility and pressure will be pushed as much as possible onto the rank and file workers. It is very unclear what responsibilities the factory has. There are even factories who, faced with production problems or work injuries, will penalize all of the workers through salary deductions. These rules can also be used by managers as means to discipline and control workers: in the end, the implementation of these regulations can be loose or strict; whether to call someone out, whether to punish them, and whether to punish lightly or severely is all in the hands of management.

Some rules are made to facilitate the factory’s system for ceaselessly generating profit for the boss. For example, in order to ensure a certain pace of production, assembly line workers are not allowed to drink water or go to the toilet without reporting to superiors and finding somebody to substitute for them. The night shift and rotating shift systems also exist primarily to ensure the boss’s machines are never idle in order to make more money. Workers cannot reasonably arrange their time as needed; everything must operate according to factories arrangements. If the company wants you to work overtime, even if the sky is falling, you work overtime. When they don’t need you, it doesn’t matter how much you need the money. As far as cutting costs and raising efficiency are concerned, the boss is always willing to spend some money to hire an expert to study how workers can save a few seconds. In order to meet production targets, managers will not let workers take leave and will force them to do overtime, endlessly urging: Faster! Faster! But when it comes to worker’s health, the factory is always intent on saving as much as possible.

There are other rules, designed purely for the purpose of squeezing more out of workers. Some factories will make workers work a few extra minutes without pay to make up for the time lost during their break (the very purpose of these “breaks” is to allow workers to recuperate energy, so they can do better work for the boss). It is common now to see things like time off in lieu of overtime (调休), buying social insurance according to rank (they buy it for office workers, but don’t buy it or make it “voluntary” for assembly line workers), and giving workers unpaid leave when there are no orders coming in… [All this is] far, far too common. Some do this openly some do it secretly, some use loopholes in the law, and some simply break the law, but basically, there are thousands of ways to get extra money out of workers.

Regulations crafted with the boss’s interests in mind necessarily ignore or even trample workers’ interests and rights. This principle is clearly demonstrated in the double standard regarding the protection of property for the boss versus for workers. Some factories treat workers like “criminal suspects”, searching them from head to toe every time they enter or leave the shop floor: workers cannot wear anything with metal in it (even undergarments), they cannot bring cell phones, and sometimes they even have to open their mouths to prove they aren’t hiding anything inside. This kind of screening is really just a form of humiliation, and if one were to run into an overbearing security guard, a conflict erupting would hardly be a surprise. But when it comes to taking care of worker’s belongings, the boss doesn’t give a damn. Not long ago there was a news story that came out online about a youth whose phone was stolen out of his locker. When he turned to the factory for help, no one paid him any attention. In the end, in extreme vexation, he torched himself. Although this youth’s story is just one case, there are surely many workers who have found there is no one they can complain to when they lose things in the factory or dormitory.

There are some rules that are not directly related to production: workers of different ranks wearing different color hats and armbands, management eating in separate canteens. The function of these kinds of rules is to emphasize the omnipresent hierarchies within the factory, and some of these rules are absolutely unreasonable. For example, some require that all workers wear socks of the same color at work, others that workers must not wear shoes with shoelaces. These rules are quite likely a product of the boss’s sudden whimsical inspiration. Their only value is to express the authority of the rule-makers – only “I” have the right to make rules on a whim, you only get to obey them. The purpose of forcing workers to follow these motley regulations is to psychologically control them and cultivate servility.

On the one hand, a variety of regulations bind workers to the production line and the factory. If you violate them, they will reprimand or warn you for small offenses and fine or fire you for large ones. On the other hand, the boss and management, especially upper level management, enjoys the privilege of being above any kind of regulation: they can talk loudly on the shop floor, they don’t need to go through a security check when they enter or leave the shop floor, they can take products from the production line without registering, and so forth. Sometimes for convenience sake, with a single word they can override all kinds of processes and regulations, causing chaos in production and leaving it up to the affected staff to find ways to fix things. If any upper level manager or boss actually strictly followed regulations, they would surely gain the status of a “legendary” figure. Thus, the existence of rules serves one more purpose: it manifests the relationship of dominator and dominated that exists between management and workers.

Besides facing irrational rules, workers also have to deal with coercion from all kinds of managers. Factory managers’ crude and aggressive treatment of workers is habitual practice. In some factories, the very maxim of management is: “managers who don’t scold are not good managers.” In addition to the extensive rules and lack of freedom, some young workers don’t like working in factories because they are sick of the management methods that fail to treat workers like human beings.

Why is factory management, especially on the assembly line, so aggressive? Because these higher ups are crude and ignorant and only know how to yell at people? Of course not. Unlike in some companies and institutions that also have hierarchy and management, in factories, work relations between people are much more simple and direct. If problems occur in one segment of production the consequences are immediately apparent, it’s not up to management to hold back and consider teaching management methods. But simple doesn’t have to mean crude and aggressive. That workers have no dignity or rights to speak of at work is determined by their position within production.

In order to further cut costs and increase profits, some large factories will implement “scientific management”. One effect of this kind of management is to minimize each worker’s individual influence on the production process: the whole production process is “scientifically divided” into many work posts, each person is assigned a work post, and problems are solved in a standard, set process. This way any individuals’ influence on the production process is reduced, and that individual’s control over production also gets weaker. Any single worker becomes a cheap, easily replaceable, low cost “screw” vis-a-vis the the whole production process, while lower management is the “whip” that keeps all of the screws obediently working. On the other hand, control and decision-making in production is more and more concentrated in the hands of those who own the (means of) production – in the hands of the boss and upper management. All they have to do is constantly put pressure on the whips. They don’t have to be nice to the screws or the whips, and must not be nice to them – since if they were really to let the screws express their opinions on production, this mode of management would be impossible to maintain.

No matter how far the bosses take “scientific management”, workers will not really become mindless screws without thoughts, emotions or needs. Exploitative and oppressive management will sooner or later bring about some kind of resistance. We see abused workers swearing back at managers and hear stories of workers winning law suits against factories. But workers’ individual resistance is inevitably feeble. Even if they win, they at most win against some manager, or gain some compensation already guaranteed by law. Their basic situation will not have changed. The facts prove that if workers want to improve their situation, they must rely on collective power. There are examples of this all around us: workers in an electronic factory collectively petitioning the factory to increase night shift subsidies; workers in a watch chain factory going on strike to demand compensation for five years of 40 minutes unpaid overtime per day that they had to do to make up for work breaks; workers in a toy factory going on strike to demand the factory make up social insurance contributions; workers in an athletic goods factory winning through strike a make up of social security payments, high temperature subsidies, and the guarantee of a minimum salary, among other demands… Though this kind of resistance does not necessarily threaten management’s authority, it is the only efficient way to force them to make concessions and improvements that benefit workers.


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