Factory Stories: The Fu Factory Palace

by Chengcheng (Factory Stories #7, April 2013)


Preliminary note on the factory training at Fu Factory: capable people know how to solve problems – it’s the basis for their promotion. It makes capable people work more; problem solving is the criterion for assessing the skill level; success is not a remarkable quality, only a basic accomplishment; you must be an eagle not a duck; an eagle can solve problems, a duck can only quack.

After the year-end inventory, when the production of goods had finished according to the production plan, there was nothing to do for two days. Fu Factory is a company where the production capacity is carefully calculated and planned, so it was unexpected that we would stay idle, it’s something that happened rarely. However, after thinking about it, it was not strange: It was part of the company’s production plan! The company strictly controlled discipline as well as production capacity. The employees did not need to ask why and did not need to know why. As long as they were determined to follow all the company rules everything was fine. So it seemed that just like you were not allowed to cross your legs in the workshop, you did not need to ask for the reason, that was the rule! Certainly, to become a qualified employee of Fu Factory it was necessary to have an extremely obedient mind, but that was not the only thing. You had to genuinely blend into the company, get to know it even better and accept all the duties the company assigned to you.

When things go missing just accept your fate

The so-called “apartment block kind” of dormitories is very basic, full of bedbugs, very annoying. Colleagues often complain about being bitten by bedbugs all over and having to get up in the middle of the night to catch them. Not only that, in the dormitories mobile phones and clothes get stolen frequently. Let’s not talk about the clothes. If mobile phones get stolen, you go to the dormitory office or Employee Care Center to file a complaint, but none of them care. At most, they point out that everyone should look after their own possessions. When clothes go missing it makes even less sense to report it. The company offers a compulsory service. Apart from underwear, all clothes have to be handed in for washing. Whoever washes clothes privately in the dormitories is penalized. However, the clothes that are handed in for communal washing are all put into the same washing machine together, and they are simply not washed clean. So many colleagues wash their clothes by themselves secretly, especially female workers. Since the dormitories have no balconies, they need to hang the clothes outside where they can be easily stolen. Roommate Meimei said that she has been here for less than half a year, and already five or six of her clothes got stolen. Sometimes even underwear disappears! And you cannot even complain because you have violated the company rules in the first place! So it seems that through that kind of service the company does not only save water and electricity but there is also the advantage that the property management and the company reduce their responsibility – since there is no need to go after the clothes’ thieves.

In the workshop: before you enter the dressing room you have to take off the anti-static slippers, but these slippers disappear every day; especially when the shoe cabinet is not locked or shoes are put outside the cabinet they will certainly disappear; the same with anti-static clothes; even if there is a name stitched onto clothes someone else might rip it off and take the piece away. In the dressing room this person takes the clothes of that person, and that person takes the clothes of some other person, so every day someone shouts that clothes have disappeared again. When you have no clothes neither the warehouse clerk responsible for working clothes and protective equipment nor the head of the dressing room or the line leader care about it. The line leaders say it is not their task; the managers say that there are many people and they cannot deal with everything, or they ask you to rip off the name written on other workers’ clothes; the warehouse clerks are even nastier and say they have no working clothes. They don’t pay attention to you and tell you to go and find a manager! Shoes can all be stolen, not to mention mobile phones. Even if they are put inside the phone box and that is locked they can still get stolen, let alone when some people don’t feel like putting it into the phone box but into the shoe cabinet. All this happens – and it even continues to happen – under surveillance cameras.

In life and at work, everywhere many conflicts

Usually eight people live in one company dormitory room. The employees are randomly allocated [to each room], and different temperaments, living habits, shifts etc. produce all kinds of conflicts. Once, roommate A came back from night shift in the early morning at five o’ clock. She hadn’t brought her key, so she knocked on the door but all roommates were asleep. So she took all her strength and kicked the door. Everyone was woken up and mad at her, and, naturally, her relationship with the roommates deteriorated. Sometimes people on the day shift use the meal break at noon or in the evening to return to the dorm and take a short rest, and they easily disturb those who have to get ready for the night shift and are still sleeping.

At work, conflicts exist everywhere, between the workers at the production line, between workers and low-level managers, supervisors, and quality controllers, among the low-level managers, and between them and high-level managers, the staff of the engineering department, supervisors, quality managers, etc. There are also conflicts between company security guards and employees. Supervisors and quality controllers patrol the production lines every day, checking for workers who are not following procedure while executing their tasks in the production process. Yet, employees feel the pressure by low-level managers to meet the output. Sometimes, they simply cannot follow their assigned tasks. As a result, employees have to be observant, alert, and vigilant and work as if they are cheaters! At times, the rate of defective goods [produced] on the production line is too high, and the production department comes over to find out why. It has to be mentioned that there is a problem with technical skills at the production line, and the low-level managers get angry, of course. The people from the engineering department can talk a lot, but getting things done is a different matter. How should the technical skills be changed, and what should be done when the production capacity cannot be reached? Besides, as they want to change the technical skills they nevertheless need to justify it. Certainly, people from the engineering department often estimate or guess but do not say anything definite. Then they argue about it for some time, and in the end it does not [even] matter who has the upper hand. It is all rather awkward. Company security guards and employees are always and everywhere in conflict because at Fu Factory the company security guards are present in all employee dormitories and workshops. Employees have to swipe the entrance card to prove they belong there. Sometimes the card does not work, so the company security guards detain you, don’t let you go through, and that, inevitably, leads to conflict. At times it triggers a rebellion when angry workers vent their anger.

A strict hierarchy, and no rank skipping

In Fu Factory, as everybody knows, the work force is divided into 20 ranks, from workers to the director-general. Different ranks have different wages. Moreover, there is a special kind of rank – the management level. Whether you are at the training for new employees or at a workshop assembly, almost everyone you ask mentions that in the company, no matter what is the issue, one must report from one rank to the next, and it is not allowed to skip a rank. When a machine breaks down, the deputy line leader has to be informed within half an hour, the line leader within one hour, the group leader within two hours, and then the responsible manager will be informed… If workers aren’t satisfied with a thing they also need to complain rank by rank. They are not allowed to complain directly to the center or the union, otherwise the line leader will give them a hard time or will even force them to leave.

Corresponding to the strict hierarchy, all company affairs follow a certain procedure. No matter how complex or how unnecessary, the procedures have to be strictly followed. For instance, I applied for a place in a dormitory outside [the factory]. After handing in the application form and in order to comply with the company rules for changing dormitories, you have to first check out of your [old] dormitory and then go to the new one to check in. Otherwise you are taken off the list of the [old] dormitory and cannot sign in at [the new] external dormitory nor move in there. So there would be no dorm space at the company anymore. I had just dealt with the check-in procedures when the application form was turned down. I had to go to the new dormitory where I had never actually lived so far and deal with checking-out procedures. A matter that is essentially easy to handle became very annoying! What’s more, the company is very big, and the dormitories are far apart, so I wasted a lot of time going back and forth.

The severe punishment is also unfair

The company has no clearly defined penal catalog but rather plenty of penal rules, all kinds of warnings, for small or large offenses, and from dozens up to one hundred penal clauses. Those punishments should not be underestimated as they are directly linked to the performance and the year-end bonus, the up and down of the wages, and promotions. Among them are fines for larger offenses of 500 RMB!

Although there are many penal clauses, whether they are actually applied or not depends on many human factors. If someone has good relations with management, then everything is, of course, easy to handle. If a manager sees that you are not nice to look at or he is deliberately opposing you, then you are doomed. Xiangxiang once left her place [at work] and came back about 20 minutes later (according to company rules it is not allowed to leave the place for more than 15 minutes). She was discovered by the deputy line leader Q who wanted to list her for punishment. However, Xiangxiang said that there were several men who had left before her and came back late, so why weren’t they listed? Those men have good relations with Q, so Q didn’t say anything at the time. He listed them for punishment, and all of them signed the form, but afterwards he secretly tore apart the form with their names. He only passed on the form with Xiangxiang’s name on it. Clearly, punishments are following the [personal] preferences of managers.

At work there is often the feeling of oppression

Depression is a kind of feeling that many colleagues at the company have. It is impossible to say what the specific reasons are, but whenever one enters the workshop, that feeling simply appears. When you work there, the time you start working, the time you get off, the time you rest, it’s all regulated by the company. The employees appear as hi-tech robots without self-awareness. Particularly when you always have days off when others are at work. You are the only one having a rest, and you are looking for others to chat or go out together, but all that is difficult. If you occasionally make some mistake in the workshop or get there late and then reply defiantly, then you are finished. Managers will [then] from time to time find out that you don’t work well, rebuke you, force you to write a self-criticism or clean the area at the production line, sometimes they won’t let you do overtime, etc. On those days you will not have an easy time! The managers’ methods are not too excessive and, yet, unreasonable. You don’t feel like – or don’t think it is worth to – complain. Ultimately, it is making you depressed, you feel pressure with no way to release it, and you have no other alternative but to quit the job.

Preparing to provide in-time support

Providing support, as the words imply, means to go to other workplaces, workshops or workers with other tasks to help in production. Fu Factory is very big, with many workers, and just our department has dozens of buildings with numerous workshops. Every workshop has several production lines, and on every line the work is organized in a different way. It is unavoidable that there aren’t enough workers at some lines while there are too many on others. When looking at other factories, it might be the case that when there are too few workers they speed up and hire staff, and when there too many workers they cut staff to compensate, but at Fu Factory that scenario usually does not happen. The system of “providing assistance” helps Fu Factory a great deal. When there are too few workers here, then workers from places where there are too many will be transferred to provide assistance; when there are too many workers here, then they are transferred to places where there are too few to provide assistance. In any case, most of the work done at Fu Factory is a question of practice before it is done perfectly, and after workers have some experience they can be transferred anywhere and master the work. At the same time, the provision of assistance also has one advantage: it is possible to undermine workers’ efforts to defend their rights. Some time ago, our production line got a new group leader and a new line leader. The new line leader wanted to brush out and bring in new policies, and as a result we, the workers at the line, did not accept him as a boss and started a slow down strike to resist against him. That line leader asked many workers to come over “to provide support”, and he did not just break our struggle but also forced several workers to leave. We were totally defeated. In short, Fu Factory’s employees are all migrants [i.e., floating population], and they go wherever they are needed. Of course, you can decide not to go, but then it means, sorry, you have to leave, or after a while of working without overtime there is really no other choice but to leave.

Low-level managers are not very powerful but have some authority

What are low-level managers like? I thought they just belong to those responsible for getting the work done and allocating tasks during the work process, but, in fact, their authority is much bigger than what I imagined. Only if they want it can you have some freedom on the production line, only if they are in a good mood; but if they want they can also prevent you doing overtime, getting promoted, or receiving a higher wage. Even if you complain, under the company’s strict hierarchical system a manager on the next level up has to do a so-called “investigation” which is no more than a formality. In the end, the decision remains in the hands of the low-level manager. So it is no surprise that the production workers’ anger in the factory is directed entirely against the low-level managers, because all employees know that their interests are directly affected by the low-level managers.

I just feel that Fu Factory resembles the Imperial Palace. From outside you see the wall around it and a big number of majestic mansions. The money to be made from wages is described as dropping down like flower blossoms. Inside, however, it is heavily guarded and strictly hierarchical. The employees are like slaves and imperial maidens, the line leaders and their deputes are the eunuchs. Sometimes the unwitting imperial maidens and slaves get killed by the hands of the eunuchs, and whether one is able to escape from this predicament is only a matter of pure luck!

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