Factory Stories: Notes on the work in two factories in Shenzhen

by Guishugan Zai Na (Factory Stories #6, November 2012)


As a quality controller in a large factory

I am from Sichuan. My family situation was not good because my father was ill all the time. After finishing school, I came to Shenzhen and started working for a Taiwanese electronics factory. I was hired just outside the factory gate. All the products were for export. At the time, [the factory] had more than 2,000 workers, later it went up to 3,000 and then to 4,000. Then it relocated to Huizhou and employed more than 10,000. The company bought a plot of land, as big as a sports stadium, solely for doing [morning] gymnastics. After just a few days in the factory, I was transferred to the quality control department. The wage was raised a bit every three or four months. Since I worked really hard, started early and finished late, I was considered an outstanding employee and therefore got an extra bonus every month. I like to examine things in detail. In the quality control department there was some work that was not part of my tasks but I still wanted to learn how to do it. Maybe because of that the company management was rather satisfied with my work. At the end of the year, when the boss gave some people personal gifts, he said they were company rewards. One time I got a camera, and when others saw that and asked me about it I told them it was a company reward. No one fussed about that.

While I was earning more than 1,200 yuan at the time, ordinary workers got a wage of between 500 and 800. Many of them quit the job because the wage was too low and the working hours too long. In addition, in that company you had to exercise for half an hour every morning, and many people hated it. When doing the exercises, the boss of every department called out the names, and who didn’t do the exercises could get penalized and had to sweep the floors or clean the toilets. There could also be a small fine to pay. If the production target was not reached, the managers usually started cursing. I have heard others saying: “Today I received a scolding again.” However, that never happened to me.

I have been out working for ten years, and I got along pretty well. Among the people from my home area are some who work in electronics factories, in shoe factories, and in garment factories, and they all complain that it is too hard. I worked in quality control and didn’t think it was hard. It is kind of like playing. However, the working hours were too long. During the half year with slow business we did overtime until midnight; during the busy half year we worked overtime until three or four o’clock at night. In the morning, we still had to do the exercises, and every week we had only Sunday off to rest. [Thankfully] I am very energetic and can stay up all night. Then the factory provided food and accommodation so that one did not spend any money. Maybe it’s because I come from a poor family but I think the canteen was not bad and the food was good. In the workers’ dormitory about ten to twelve people lived in each room. I lived there for just a few days, and when I was transferred to the quality control department I moved to their dormitory. That department was the most privileged in the company, and the dormitory was in a building outside [the factory complex] that was specifically rented. Two people shared one room, and there was a shuttle bus that took us to work in the morning.

I am rather introverted and don’t often have exchanges with colleagues. The manager invited us to go out and eat sometimes, but I never went. At the time, I rarely saw the Taiwanese bosses, and I didn’t care about them, I just wanted to earn money.

The company was not behind in paying the wages. There was no wage slip, and everything was paid out in cash. I also don’t know how the wages were calculated. At the time it was seen like this: I give you work, you give me money, and that’s how it works. Every year I could send more than 10,000 yuan back home because at the time I was just thinking how my father is sick and really needs money. So I did not buy clothes or a mobile phone and just used a beeper [pager]. Later a landline phone was installed at home so I used public phone booths to call my family.

That company invited the whole workforce out for dinner at the Spring Festival. There was a party in the evening with some extra dishes to eat, all very good. We also got ‘red envelopes’ [money gifts]. I got about 100 or 200, but I don’t know how much others got. Everyone kept quiet about that, but we definitely didn’t get the same amount. Our manager got 500. When he counted the money and I could see it. Every year the company organized a Spring excursion. Whoever didn’t join had to pay a fine of 200 because great attention was paid to team building. At the excursion we went either to the seaside or climbed up a mountain. We were fed and stayed over night, and there was barbecue. Of course, I didn’t really want to join the fun, but I didn’t want to pay the fine either, so I went with the flow.

Once I went to the post office to transfer money. At the entrance, I saw a crowd of people standing around and watching something interesting going on. I went to see it, too, and one month’s wage was stolen from me. Since then I’ve always been avoiding crowds. When something happens I always keep away.

After I had worked in that company for four or five years, my family wanted me to return home. The idea was that I had reached the age to get married and that I should settle down for good. So I quit the job which is usually not easy in our company with the exception of the quality control department. At the time, the manager told me: “People from other factories quit their jobs and come to our factory because conditions here are very good. What will you do after returning home? You will certainly have to leave to [find] work again! If you want to start a business you won’t have enough money. You cannot speak any languages, so you cannot talk to foreigners either. So what are you going to do when you go back?” But I still quit the job.

As a manager in a small factory

After returning home I stayed for not even two years. I tried to sell phonecards but wasn’t successful and lost money. In 2006, I returned to Shenzhen to [find] work. I went to a talent market and walked around, passing out my CV. There was a small factory with a boss in his 30s from Zhejiang. He hired me as a manager, but in fact I had to do all kinds of things.

The boss and his wife usually did not show up much and were mostly outside running around. The factory head was a student in his 20s who was mostly responsible for receiving clients and had little understanding of technical issues. There was also a technician. Someone from the same home area as the boss said that, originally, the boss had [also] been a technician in another factory, and this technician used to be his colleague there, but the boss brought him out of there and into this factory.

The three of us lived in the same house as the boss, and everyone had their own flat. The flats had a living room and a kitchen. The company provided food and accommodation, but the canteen was not as good as in the Taiwanese factory. The work in this factory was rather relaxed as there weren’t that many regulations and restrictions. Every day we worked two hours overtime, there was no night shift, and only a few people worked on a two-shift roster.

My work task was to fill out all work report forms. I was also responsible for receiving and giving out materials, and I had to maintain the order of production in the work shop. At the time, the whole company had only three computers, one for the boss, one for his wife, and one for the head of production. When I filled out forms I wrote everything by hand. Every day before noon, I summarized the production results from the day before.

I earned 1,200 yuan, plus a small bonus. The factory head got 3,000 to 4,000, and the technician earned more than 3,000. I was promised to get the bonus immediately, but after starting to work there I didn’t get it. I went to ask the boss, and he said: “What I really meant is that you will get it after half a year.” After half a year I only got between 100 and 200 yuan more. Later it was gradually increased. By the time I quit the job I earned about 2,000 all-in-all.

This factory produced stickers for mobile phones. Every day it had to produce more than one million stickers. The factory head said that every sticker made 0.2 yuan in profit. That boss was surely making money as his factory now employs several hundred workers. He also moved the factory, but within the city of Shenzhen. The boss was buying low quality materials, which meant that goods were often returned. He tackled this problem by continuing to buy low quality materials but demanding that crappy stock be made into good products. Every time the boss entered the factory he went to talk to the technician. He was friendly to him, tapped his shoulder and discussed technical improvements. That technician always said: “I go back home and think a bit!” Sometimes he actually managed to solve some complex problem about how to make products that met the standards out of lousy raw materials. He still works in that factory today.

Once or twice a month the factory head would invite the technician and me out to eat, so we’d develop closer relationships. However, he never asked about private matters. We often had meetings, but we only talked about business affairs.

Before I only cared about working hard and earning money, but after stepping up to be a manager my attitude changed. When I saw that the factory head earned between 3,000 and 4,000 I started itching and thinking about the idea of climbing further up. There was no work in that factory on Sundays, so I went to the library to look at books on management issues. Sometimes the factory head talked to me about something so I borrowed books to look up related contents.

In comparison to this [small] factory, work in the above-mentioned Taiwanese factory was more demanding. There nobody would talk and everyone worked properly when the boss walked by, but as soon as he had left they were chatting and having fun. This small factory had several dozen workers on forty machines. The factory head said that each machine was worth more than 100,000 yuan, but I don’t know whether that’s true or not. The workers were sincere, and while they sometimes took breaks they worked hard afterwards to avoid any delays. Several were from the same region in Zhejiang province as the boss. They were all in their 30s, were very responsible and did not have to be supervised or urged to work. I was wondering why the boss did not promote any of those people from his region to the manager position.

I was responsible for keeping track of the rate of quality for the items produced. If something fell to the ground, got discarded or was left somewhere it all counted as bad quality. I handed over my list to the wife of the boss who was in charge of money. She imposed fines [on the workers responsible] according to the list, she was very thrifty. Some workers told me when they quit the job that they were fined a few hundred yuan, and nothing was left of their wage. It was impossible for me to cover up such low quality on my list, so I was unable to help the workers if they had problems. When workers asked for days off I never approved. If they had asked me privately I would have said okay, but they always asked me in front of everybody and pretended to be ill or something. So I always said no. If I had approved their days off nobody would have worked anymore.

Maybe because of that my relations with the workers were not that good. When I walked past them in the workshop while they were chatting animatedly they stopped talking and just worked. As soon as I was gone their chatting voices could be heard again immediately. Once I quarreled with them because some goods had been returned. The boss had given me shit over that, and I went to talk to the workers. They banged on the table and told me: “You come here to work! You come here to work and do it better!” I filed a complaint, and as a result they got fined. Later I stopped filing complaints and told them:

“If you don’t quarrel with me I will not file complaints.” They also had something on me: Every day after the shift, although the boss told us that us few managers didn’t have to work overtime, we still had to go around and check. I never did do that but instead hid in a small room and read books. If I had gone I could not have helped the workers. I never helped them doing their work. They knew that I was reading books in the evening, and I was afraid they would file a complaint [against me]. So after that we didn’t get into each others’ hair anymore.

As a manager I put most emphasis on training new workers because people were always coming and leaving. I encouraged new people to learn from experienced workers so that the production output would increase. It was very easy to learn about the production process, and it was very easy to bring experienced and new workers together.

The wife of the boss had no pity. She demanded that workers don’t drop goods onto the floor and often shouted at the staff. The boss then came pretending to be the good cop and rebuked her. One of her little brothers also worked in the factory, but that guy always asked me to substitute him at work while he slipped away to play games. When the wife of the boss saw that her little brother was not working properly she got angry, and sometimes they would argue at home.

That company never allowed workers to quit the job. There was a female office worker, and we were in good terms with each other. I had a kitchen in my apartment but I didn’t cook much. She had no cooking facilities in the dorm, so she came over to my place to cook. Later she told me that her wage was too low, just a few hundred yuan. She wanted to quit the job but the boss did not let her go. The boss was in the same office as me, so I had a chance to meet him. I talked to him in her name and told him that she had problems at home and not enough money, and that she often did voluntary overtime on Sundays. The boss said: “That is not your business. Don’t deal with that. Tell her to talk to me.” I talked to the boss several times, so the wife of the boss gave that office worker her final wage. (The wife of the boss had her own office and hid the money in there.)

I stayed in that factory until about 2009. I studied law by myself and filed a lawsuit against the boss demanding overtime payments. That was a big change in my life. All the colleagues in the factory know that I filed the lawsuit. They all think I did the right thing because they all want to get paid for overtime, too.

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