Factory Stories: Factory moods – Two pieces

by Huahua (Factory Stories, #4, July 2012)


Very tired, very big workload…

I started working in this factory on May 5. Today that’s been almost a month. Before I started here I was told that factory work is very tiring. I couldn’t believe it at first, now I do. It’s really tiring here. The daily production target is very high, the workload is very big.

During the first few days I almost couldn’t bear the exhaustion. My whole body was rebelling. I thought I was ill, so I ran to the hospital for a checkup, but everything was okay. The doctor told me I was extremely exhausted from work. I was irritated that others weren’t effected, while I was so weak. Luckily, I recovered within a few days. Apparently I have gotten used to it, as everybody told me I would. Anyway, that extremely upsetting pain stopped. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not tired anymore. Every day when I get off work I have back pain and my whole body feels very weak. So I sit on a stool and don’t want to do anything.

Even more brutal is getting up every morning feeling like I’m about to fall apart very soon. This exhaustion seems like the utmost a body can bear. Sometimes I wonder: Can you die from exhaustion at the work place?

I work in a workshop that makes filter masks. The work is simple: operating the machine for the main part of the mask, cutting the string, a bit of soldering (that is: soldering the string to the main body of the mask), checking, attaching the rubber foam (that is: sticking it to the nasal area of the mask), wrapping, packing, putting it in a box. Although we get paid by the hour there is still a production target.

So how is this production target set exactly? Senior workers told me that the company first determines how long it takes to produce one piece. Then they divide eleven hours by this time span and get the required production target for one day. That is the same for every work site and every worker on every machine. The work speed cannot change and, especially, the speed cannot be reduced.

So in order to achieve the production target, during the whole day you don’t dare to go to the toilet. Despite all this, reaching the required production target is still difficult, and among the tasks soldering is the most difficult one to fulfill. The target for soldering is 400 pieces per hour. New workers usually start with just over 100 pieces and slowly manage to produce a few more every day, but I have heard that even fast workers need about a month to reach the required production target. Slow workers might not even achieve it [at all] before they get fired after a couple of months.

The target for attaching the rubber foam is 450 pieces per hour. Besides this, the instructor checks the number once every hour and lets the workers on each work site know how many pieces they have to complete. In this way they also urge those workers who are too slow to speed up (the main goal of counting the numbers is to push workers to work faster and faster).

However, to reach the target for attaching the mask you need to work even faster. It takes about a day to attach roughly 400 pieces, but you feel very stressed out because as soon as you slow down the instructor will kick your ass. That’s why everyone dislikes these two positions. They are exhausting and stressful.

Other positions are, actually, not easy either. A small number of workers have to handle a large number of goods, and you are forced to finish the tasks, otherwise you need to stay longer – and that overtime is unpaid.

Apart from the exhaustion, in that factory there is also pressure from the senior workers. First of all, it’s in the dormitory: In our dormitory there are six senior workers (who have been working in the factory for more than one year). Wu and I moved in recently, and I had started to think that nothing happens in the dormitory, but after a couple of days a room mate pointed to the clothes Wu and I had hung up on the balcony for drying and said: “You can’t dry your clothes there. That’s our drying spot. Your clothes are taking up our spot. We don’t have a spot to dry our clothes, and they are all messed up so we can’t find them.”

I was baffled. How could you not recognize your own clothes? They told us that they couldn’t find and couldn’t recognize them. Then they showed me a spot far from the sun and said: “From now on you can dry your clothes only here.” Although I was very angry, I did as she told me without knowing why.

Another issue is that the toilet has no window. When I go to the toilet after getting up in the morning I usually turn on the light. Once I left the light on when I came out. The dormitory’s female caretaker said we were not allowed to turn on the light anymore, and if we forgot to turn it off everyone in the dormitory would be fined 20 RMB. I told her it was too dark without the light on. The female caretaker asked why then was it possible to use the toilet as usual during the time when the light was broken before. Well, what can you do? Since then I have tried my best to not turn on the light when the female caretaker is around.

(By the way, the “benefits” our factory offers consist only of one thing: fines.) There is not even the most basic bonus for regular work attendance. If you forget to sign the employee card that you need to clock in for work you have to pay a fine of 5 RMB. The maximum fine can reach 150 RMB. However, according to the senior workers, they usually don’t fine you straight away but give you Saturday off. So they don’t let you work overtime that Saturday, which is a great loss for many of our workmates.)

In the workshop, senior workers often yell at new workers. In our quality control department, the work is considered group piecework. Together, several people check the soldered masks. However, the instructor separates those of us who have checked the masks of particular groups of workers. If some workers still have a pile of goods at the end of the working day, others have to help finish them together.

New workers usually can’t keep up, so there is a big pile of goods. Then senior workers will scream at us: “Faster, faster, don’t be lazy!” Besides, senior workers often complain that we, the new workers, work slowly, that we don’t take the job seriously, that we are not as passionate as they were when they used to do the work, that they are quite displeased with us – this kind of talk.

When we, the new workers, utter complaints about how exhausted we are, it gets even worse. The senior workers will tell us that we’re not able to bear hardships. It’s worse than the kind of mean talk you might hear from your wife.

Apart from that, every time after the shift there is a meeting where the line leader calls out the names of those who were working slow and those who were working fast. Even if I don’t know them, I think those whose names are called out must feel like they are loosing face.

Once a woman who started working in that factory with me got called out. Only a few days later she quit the job. Among new workers the labor turnover is very high. In our workshop alone basically every day three workers quit their job. All of them just entered the factory and worked here only for a couple of days. Some even take off their workwear and leave while still in their probation period.

Out of the nine workers who came into the factory with me, most have left already, and those who are still here are all planning to leave too. Nonetheless, there are quite a few senior workers here as well. Once I checked a list with the number of workers who had been here for more than one year. This factory employed about 500 workers then. While at least 200 had worked here for more than one year, roughly 80 had worked here for about three years. Quite a few of the workers had even worked here for more than five years. In other words, currently half of the workforce in this factory are senior workers. Seen from this perspective, this employer should be quite good. Still, I don’t know why the labor turnover is so high now.

According to senior workers, the workload has not changed much, except in certain workshops. So what is really going on? Once I talked to a worker who started to work in this factory in 2009, and she told me back when she joined all she thought about was reaching the production target as fast as possible. Sometimes she even skipped lunch and continued working. At the time, she felt that the workers on the line all got on well. If close to the end of the working day some hadn’t reached the production target everybody came and helped out. She said, at the time she didn’t think that the work was tiring but that time went by in a flash. Sometimes she even missed working when she had time off during national holidays. So now she hates to see new workers with goods piling up while they chat.

Still, that doesn’t mean senior workers don’t feel at all tired. Every time the senior workers who attach the rubber foam come over to take a piece they utter a word or two about how tiring it is, that they are aching all over and the like. So it seems that they too look forward to Sundays, but have no hope of getting two days off.

I heard that there is a union in our factory. When I asked the line leader, I was told that up until last year workers were still asked to join the union, but, apparently, there is no such activity this year. According to the line leader, having a union and not having a union is the same. It is useless.

Factory mood – agitated

I have worked in the factory for over eight months now. My letter of resignation is already written, and I’m just waiting for the 21st. I still don’t know why lately I feel agitated all the time. Maybe it’s because I want to quit the job and I’m panicking when I think about what will come afterwards.

In the morning S. said: “That went by very fast!” I asked her: “What went by fast? Time?” She said: “Today is Saturday, another week went by.” I thought about it: Yeah, soon another week will have gone by! I said: “But if I think about this week in more detail, actually, nothing comes to my mind that is worth remembering.” She said: “That’s true. I feel like I didn’t do anything, so time passed, it just passed very fast.” I laughed and said: “What times are we living in! There is no difference between us and machines. Machines are bought with a single payment, we are bought through an installment plan. Besides, maybe we are not even worth the price of a machine.” She laughed, too, and said: “That is what we are: machines!”

Maybe that was the point when I started to be upset. Just when I got to work in the afternoon, the leader of the insertion machine team took one piece of the insertion material and asked the women working in the team: “Who inserted this piece?” A senior female colleague said it was her. Then the team leader took the inserted piece, went right in front of the worker and said in an interrogating tone of voice: “Did you think about taking this piece away or not?” The way she said it sounded like: “You wanted to steal something!” The female colleague started arguing with the team leader right away. I heard the team leader saying: “If you get arrested, I can not speak up for you.”

Damn it, what kind of place is this? You can’t say a word, you can’t rest properly, you can’t make a mistake, you can’t throw anything away, you can’t see customers, you can’t go to the toilet when you need, you can’t take or make phone calls, you can’t defend yourself… When you don’t have freedom, just forget it. Now, even defamation is used. It is so disgusting. In fact, I can’t stay any longer. I want to get out of this environment as soon as possible and get away from this bunch of people who control us.

So I asked for time off. I want, at least, one day for myself without having to hear those people’s scolding, without their bossing around, without those upper-level managers picking on us in the workshop, with the hands behind their backs, and, most of all, without the workers who receive the same treatment as I do but don’t react at all.

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