Remember the force behind China’s boom: Women factory workers

Photo by Emma Vezey
“Factory Girls”

The splendor of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing left the world astounded at China’s growth, capability and power. But in the same way that the flames of the Olympic torch were extinguished at the end of the games, the people – the millions of factory workers and laborers who made it possible – have long been forgotten.

Leslie T. Chang, author of “Factory Girls” published in October, reminds us of the real force behind China’s boom.

In a tender blend of detailed personal stories with their roles in the larger national economy, Chang argues that it is these people, the 130 million migrant workers hidden behind factory walls, who are primarily responsible for the exponential growth and success of China’s industry and economy.

Chang, a journalist and former Chinese correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, presents accounts detailing the rises and falls of several Chinese women in the industry over the last decade. This personal detail provides poignant evidence of the country’s wide trend of women moving from their rural villages to embrace the opportunities of money and capitalistic ideals of success that the cities offer.

The narratives revolve around Donguaan, a renowned factory town and home to the world’s largest shopping mall. Located just less than 50 miles from Hong Kong, 70 percent of its population of seven million is made up of women.

Chang begins with the narrative of Min, who left her village and came to Donguaan in search of work. She was 16 years old, and the legal working age is 18 in China. But finding work was easy.

“There was a fact of factory life you couldn’t know from the outside: Getting into a factory was easy. The hard part was getting out,” wrote Chang.

With grueling 12-hour shifts and squalid working and living conditions, the majority of workers make an average of 400-yuan a month, the equivalent of 50 U.S. dollars. In addition, fines deduct money from their already meager pay abound. They are docked 100-yuan if they take a day off work. Talking on the job also elicits a five-yuan fine, and bathroom breaks, which require a sign-up list, are limited to one every four hours.

Chang argues that, for most women, these exploitive posts are merely steppingstones on the way to better work, pay and positions. But she also writes, “most of the factory girls believed that they [were] so poorly educated that taking a class wouldn’t help.”

Though Donguaan is beset with hundreds of night schools, learning English or computer skills has to be done after an 18-hour shift; time that could be spent earning overtime wages. Usually a month’s classes cost about a month’s salary; money that could not be spared if a portion of the women’s salaries is sent to their families as much of it was.

Chang’s report of a group of women’s unrelenting search of wealth and capitalistic self-improvement creates a devastating setting. But it is an account that resonates with anyone who has endured adversity and destitution, anyone who has overstepped boundaries set in the safety of a family home and anyone who has made sacrifices in his or her pursuit of success.

Young women in their twenties are “the elite of the factory world,” wrote Chang. Her writing allows us to see the factory world as these women do, “from the bottom up and the inside out.”

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