This Is "Free Trade"............
John A. Quayle
blueoval at SGI.NET
Mon May 13 10:07:38 MDT 2002
Worked Till They Drop
Few Protections for China's New Laborers
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 13, 2002; Page A01
SONGGANG, China -- On the night she died, Li Chunmei must have been exhausted.
Co-workers said she had been on her feet for nearly 16 hours, running back
and forth inside the Bainan Toy Factory, carrying toy parts from machine to
machine. When the quitting bell finally rang shortly after midnight, her
young face was covered with sweat.
This was the busy season, before Christmas, when orders peaked from Japan
and the United States for the factory's stuffed animals. Long hours were
mandatory, and at least two months had passed since Li and the other
workers had enjoyed even a Sunday off.
Lying on her bed that night, staring at the bunk above her, the slight
19-year-old complained she felt worn out, her roommates recalled. She was
massaging her aching legs, and coughing, and she told them she was hungry.
The factory food was so bad, she said, she felt as if she had not eaten at all.
"I want to quit," one of her roommates, Huang Jiaqun, remembered her
saying. "I want to go home."
Finally, the lights went out. Her roommates had already fallen asleep when
Li started coughing up blood. They found her in the bathroom a few hours
later, curled up on the floor, moaning softly in the dark, bleeding from
her nose and mouth. Someone called an ambulance, but she died before it
The exact cause of Li's death remains unknown. But what happened to her
last November in this industrial town in southeastern Guangdong province is
described by family, friends and co-workers as an example of what China's
more daring newspapers call guolaosi. The phrase means "over-work death,"
and usually applies to young workers who suddenly collapse and die after
working exceedingly long hours, day after day.
There has been little research on what causes these deaths, or how often
they occur. Local journalists say many of them are never documented but
estimate that dozens die under such circumstances every year in the Pearl
River Delta area alone, the booming manufacturing region north of Hong Kong.
The stories of these deaths highlight labor conditions that are the norm
for a new generation of workers in China, tens of millions of migrants who
have flocked from the nation's impoverished countryside to its prospering
In an historic shift, these migrant workers now number more than 200
million by some estimates, more than the 80 million employees working in
China's shrinking state industries.
These new workers are younger, poorer, and less familiar with the promises
of labor rights and job security that once served as the ideological
bedrock of the ruling Communist Party. They are more likely to work for
private companies, often backed by foreign investment, with no socialist
tradition of cradle-to-grave benefits.
The young migrants are also second-class citizens, with less access to the
weak courts and trade unions that sometimes temper market forces as China's
economy changes from socialist to capitalist. Most of all, they are
outsiders, struggling to make a living far away from home.
'Go Out and Make Money'
Li Chunmei's home was the village of Xiaoeshan, a remote hamlet high in the
mountains of western Sichuan province, 700 miles and a world away from the
factories of Songgang, where she died. The area remains among the poorest
in China, with no roads, one telephone and limited electricity and plumbing.
There are no tractors, just oxen, a few primitive tools and peasants who
till the earth with their hands. Few residents can read a newspaper, and
fewer still speak the national language, Mandarin. Traveling there entails
a hike through fog-shrouded mountains, along narrow paths that resemble
muddy balance beams.
Li Chunmei was the second of five children born to parents who squeeze out
a living from this rough terrain, farming small plots of land on terraces
carved into the mountainside. Day after day, they climb up and down the
mountain, tending to scattered patches of wheat and rice.
"This is a poor village, and all the parents here want their children to
leave for the cities as soon as possible," said Li's father, Li Zhimin,
sitting inside a house he built out of packed dirt. "The sooner they go,
the sooner they can help support the family."
The economics are simple, residents said. People in Xiaoeshan eat most of
what they grow, and by selling the rest they earn an average annual income
of about $25 each. But local officials demand about $37 per person in taxes
and fees. Several peasants who refused to pay last year were arrested.
Residents say there is only one way to survive: Pull the children out of
school, and later send them to find work in faraway cities.
Li took his eldest daughter, Li Mei, out of school in the third grade,
before she learned to write her name properly. Li Chunmei left school in
the third grade, too. The girls were put to work farming and feeding the
When Li Mei was 15, she boarded a bus to Shenzhen, the special economic
zone adjacent to Hong Kong.
"Our family was having difficulties," she said. "I wanted to support myself
and earn money to help my parents. I wanted to help keep my other sisters
Two years later, Li Mei returned home with more than $100 in savings. Li
Chunmei was 15 then, and she announced she was ready to join her sister in
the city. The family needed the money, and she didn't want her father to
work so hard, Li Mei recalled her sister saying.
At the end of the holiday, Li Zhimin accompanied his daughters on the long
walk through the mountains to the nearest bus station. Li Chunmei was
crying quietly, he recalled.
"Of course, I was worried, . . . but I told her not to cry," her father
said. "I told her, 'There's no reason to cry. Go out and make money.'
"I told her, 'It's bad luck to cry.' "
The Worst Job
The ride lasted three days and three nights.
When they reached the elevated expressway between Guangzhou and Shenzhen,
Li Chunmei caught her first glimpse of the factory complexes of the Pearl
River Delta, her sister said. Drab, concrete dormitories line the road,
decorated only by lines of laundry hanging from window to window. Late at
night, passing motorists can peer through the factory windows and see rows
of young women hunched over machines, working under florescent lights.
The Li sisters disembarked in Dongguan, a fast-growing city of 9 million
residents, of whom more than 7 million are migrant workers. Li Mei had
spent the past two years there, moving from one toy factory to another, and
she had a job waiting. She said it didn't take long to arrange one for her
little sister, too.
But Li Chunmei's first year in the factories ended abruptly when a
motorcycle struck her and broke her leg while she was crossing the street.
Her father said he traveled to Dongguan and took his daughter home to
When she returned more than a year later, at the age of 17, Li Chunmei
settled in Songgang, a satellite town northwest of Shenzhen where her
sister had found work with a Korean toy manufacturer, Kaiming Industrial
Ltd. Sister helped sister again, and Li Chunmei landed a job there, too.
In the two years before her death, friends and relatives said, Li worked in
three different plants that produced stuffed animals, one run by Kaiming
and two others that regularly received orders from the company.
Songgang is dominated by sprawling, fenced-in industrial complexes that
produce all manner of clothes, toys and electronic goods for world markets.
In the evenings, after quitting time, groups of young men and women stroll
through the town, their factory ID tags pinned to their uniforms, time
cards tucked in shirt pockets.
The town presented an exciting new world for a country girl, a place with
streetlights and mahjong parlors, and off-key karaoke songs drifting
through the warm air. But friends and co-workers said Li rarely ventured
outside the factory gates.
Inside, life followed a rigid routine, co-workers said. Li was out of bed
by 7:30 a.m. and in uniform and at her post by 8. At noon, she could take
90 minutes for lunch and a quick nap. At 5:30 she had 30 minutes for
dinner. Overtime began at 6, and the quitting bell usually didn't ring
until after midnight.
Workers said most of the factory's employees were assigned to assembly
lines that stitched together stuffed animals. One worker attached an eye,
and the next sewed on an ear. They spent the whole day sitting in front of
their sewing machines, performing a single task again and again.
Li was a runner, co-workers said, always on her feet. When one worker
finished a task, the runners picked up the toy and raced it to the next
worker on the line. An average line had 25 workers and just two or three
runners, and produced as many as 1,000 toys a day.
"She had the worst job, and the bosses were always yelling at her to go
faster," said one worker on Li's assembly line, who asked to be identified
by his surname, Liu. "There were no breaks, and there was no air
conditioning." He added that the air was full of fibers, and with the heat
from the machines, sometimes the temperature climbed above 90 degrees.
Runners required no special skills, and were paid the least, about 12 cents
per hour, workers said. During the busy season, including extra pay for
overtime, Li could earn about $65 a month.
But there were deductions. Workers said the company withheld about $12 a
month for room and board and charged them for benefits they never received.
For example, workers said they paid for the temporary residence permits
they needed to live and work in Songgang legally, but never received them.
Managers also had the power to impose arbitrary fines, including penalties
for spending more than five minutes in the bathroom, wasting food during
meals and failing to meet production quotas, workers said.
Li often complained about the conditions, but she also seemed happy to be
earning money, friends said. Once, she told them she was saving for her dowry.
"She was shy and honest, and the poorest of all of us," said Shen Xiuqun, a
co-worker from Li's hometown. "She didn't have a boyfriend. She didn't like
music. When all of us went out, she usually stayed in."
Another colleague, Zhang Fayong, recalled that Li once purchased a new
dress, then refused to wear it. She said Li was amazed she had spent the
money on it, and afraid she somehow might ruin it. After her death, her
father found the dress among her belongings, folded and wrapped in plastic,
He also found a stack of laminated snapshots, taken at local photo parlors
for 50 cents apiece. They show Li with her friends, standing in front of
false landscapes, dressed up in costumes: a military uniform, a traditional
Chinese gown. She looks surprisingly young, just a teenager with long black
hair, holding flowers, or saluting, or sitting with an ID tag pinned to her
She was smiling in only one picture.
'We Were Trapped'
Two months before she died, Li Chunmei was transferred from the main
Kaiming factory to a new plant down the street, the Bainan Toy Factory, a
featureless brown building. She and about 60 other Kaiming employees began
making toys in a third-floor workshop under the supervision of her manager
at Kaiming, Wu Duoqin, co-workers said.
There, conditions got worse. The peak season had arrived, and Wu pressed
her employees to work longer and longer hours, sometimes past 2 a.m. or 3
a.m., workers said. They worked every day for more than 60 days.
"Everyone has to work overtime. You have no choice. Even if you're sick,
you have to work," said one of Li's co-workers, who asked to be identified
only by her surname, Zhao.
"But we don't even get paid for all of the overtime," she added. "For
example, we might work six or seven hours extra, but then they just put
down three or four hours on the timecards."
Less than a week before she died, Li begged her line manager for a day off,
saying she was exhausted. He refused. Then Li skipped a night shift to
catch up on sleep and was docked three days' pay, co-workers recalled.
Friends said Li often spoke of quitting and returning home. But the factory
had not paid her for two months, and if she quit, she was afraid she might
not get the money. Several workers were in similar situations. "We were
trapped," said one, a 17-year-old girl from Sichuan province. "All we could
do was keep working."
Many of the conditions described by Li's co-workers violate Chinese law.
The minimum wage in Songgang is about 30 cents per hour. Overtime is
limited in China to no more than 36 hours per month, and it must be
voluntary. Arbitrary fines and pay deductions are prohibited. But
enforcement of the law is weak.
"It may be illegal, but it's normal," said Wu Chunlin, 25, a migrant from
Sichuan who said he has worked in a half-dozen different factories in the
region over the past five years. "It's more or less the same wherever we go."
One Chinese journalist who has investigated working conditions in the Pearl
River Delta said the problem is a "merger of interests" between local
government officials and factory managers. The officials are eager to
stimulate investment and generate taxes and bribes, so they are often
willing to overlook labor rights and safety violations, he said.
Li Qiang, a former labor organizer in China who fled to the United States
two years ago, described helping a group of 400 migrant workers in Shenzhen
file a complaint about factory conditions, only to be turned away by local
"They said, 'Go back to the factory.' They said, 'You should know better.
It's like this everywhere,' " Li Qiang recalled. "The problem is a lot of
these local officials have relatives or friends who are hired as managers
in the factories. There's a network of connections, and migrant workers are
on the outside."
In many ways, migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in China's
working class. Under a government system intended to restrict population
movement, migrants enjoy fewer rights and welfare benefits than workers in
the old state factories, and police can arbitrarily arrest and repatriate
them to their hometowns.
It is also more difficult for them to organize protests or follow through
with a complaint in the slow-moving courts. "The state workers have been
together a long time. Sometimes they grew up together, so it can be easier
for them to stick together," Li Qiang said. "But migrant workers are from
different places, and they don't have deep roots. They're easily scattered."
The migrant workers usually are less educated than their urban
counterparts, and largely unaware of their rights. Very few belong to
government-controlled trade unions; in interviews, many had never even
heard of the Chinese word for labor union.
In the private factories where migrants often work, managers are primarily
concerned about profit. By contrast, despite new market pressures, managers
of state factories in China often resemble political leaders, responsible
for the overall welfare of their workers.
Foreign outcry over sweatshop labor has led some multinational firms to
monitor conditions in their factories and among their direct suppliers. But
a system of subcontracting has undermined such measures.
For example, Kaiming Industrial receives orders to produce toys for a
variety of brand-name companies, but their inspectors rarely visit the
company and always announce visits in advance, according to a senior
manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He said the factory maintains good labor standards. It can afford to do so,
he said, because it farms out the least profitable and most difficult
orders to factories with lower standards, including Bainan, and then just
takes a commission. The Bainan factory, in turn, distributes some of its
workload to subcontractors such as Wu Duoqin, the supervisor who employed
Li Chunmei, he said.
"So you see, she wasn't working for us," he said. "It's not our problem."
A woman who answered the phone at the Bainan factory but refused to give
her name said the same thing: "Yes, we heard about that. But she wasn't
working for us. It's not our responsibility."
Wu Duoqin could not be located. Officials at Kaiming and Bainan said they
had lost touch with her, and a phone number she once used was disconnected.
A Father's Sorrow
Immediately after learning of his daughter's death, Li Zhimin traveled to
Songgang. For 28 days, he said, he tried to get someone to take
responsibility for what happened.
The police sent him to the offices of the local labor bureau, which sent
him to the Bainan factory, where managers refused to see him. Then he tried
the district-level labor bureau, which sent him to the local commerce
department and the Shenzhen city labor bureau.
Finally, police gave him a letter that said a district medical examiner had
concluded Li Chunmei "suddenly died because of an illness while she was
alive." There were no other details, and the local labor bureau declared
her death "non-work-related."
Li said he was unhappy with the finding, but was helpless to do anything
about it. Eventually, he said, Kaiming Industrial pressured Wu Duoqin to
pay for his daughter's funeral, for the expenses he incurred while in
Songgang and for his bus ticket back home. His eldest daughter, Li Mei,
returned with him.
Now, the family is again struggling to make ends meet. Li Mei is planning
to return to the factories next year.
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