January 26, 2005

TICK...TICK...TICK... (via Jim Yates):

The factory nuns of urban China (Michael A. Lev, December 27, 2004, Chicago Tribune)

Bai Lin is a sad-faced 19-year-old who seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.

She works in a small industrial town for a factory that makes intravenous drip kits for hospitals. Once she lived with her family in a dirt-floored hovel at the end of a mud road in a forgotten hamlet called Two Dragons.

She left home at age 15 because her father decided she must. The family was poor, but there was an option: Every day, it seemed, more people from the villages were leaving for work in the city.

Bai Lin remembers clearly the day her father took her to the bus station. He cried. She held in her tears.

Her stoic nature defines her still. Bai Lin is a factory nun. She lives cloistered in the dreary compound of the medical instruments company, where she works 11 or 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 11 months straight until the New Year's break. When she returns home for a month, her year's wages in her pocket, it amounts to about $500.

Bai Lin belongs to one family from one village that represents an infinitesimal piece of a very large story: one of the largest industrial migration trends in human history.

Over the past decade or so, legions of Chinese have left their farms for cities as China's communist government relaxed the travel and housing restrictions that once kept a strict divide between urban workers and country peasants.

Without the rise of a flexible migrant labor force, China's economy never would have developed into the formidable international competitor it has become. China's cities today teem with these domestic migrants, some comfortably settled in jobs, others arriving daily, risking everything--though often they have nothing to lose.

Many of the people working in China's newly established factories are from the countryside.

The men living and working round-the-clock at construction sites often are migrants.

The food hawker on a street corner in Nanjing, who rises at 3:30 each morning in his tiny apartment to make the noodles for his stand and doesn't close up and go home until 8:30 at night, is a migrant.

So, too, are three poorly dressed women, each hoisting over a shoulder a rotund, 80-pound sack stuffed with potential recyclables. They march single-file down a street, bent by the strain, cartoonishly tiny under their heavy, bobbing loads, hoping to earn a few pennies for a full afternoon of rummaging.

A shifting demographic

Counting or even defining migrants isn't easy. The Chinese talk about a "floating population," meaning anyone who has left the city in which they are officially registered. At some level, a destitute farmer collecting garbage on the streets can be considered part of the same mobile phenomenon as a lawyer from Beijing living in Shanghai.

Today there are more than 100 million peasants in the cities, but so many have come and gone through the years that the total number of participants likely is far higher. These migrant workers fit different categories. Some are seasonal workers who go home for the harvest. Others have been living in the city for years but are not recognized as official city dwellers because residency laws are murky and changing.

China's plunge into migrant-based employment represents capitalism that is basic and unfettered, which can mean exploitative.

Industrial workers typically put in punishing hours, often for little or no overtime pay, in factories that can rely on antiquated equipment and provide little training. China has one of the world's highest rates of industrial accidents; at least 5,000 workers die each year in the coal-mining industry alone. Stories are common of inadequately trained machine operators who lose limbs in accidents.

Migrants tend to fare the worst. They're unsophisticated, desperate and thus especially vulnerable to unscrupulous bosses who will work them to the bone and then refuse to pay them.

There are national labor laws governing workplace conditions, but oversight and enforcement often are lax or non-existent and there are no minimum-wage rules. There also are no independent unions and no labor activists to defend workers' rights because the Communist Party does not allow challenges to its authority.

Pressure doesn't build up infinitely.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 26, 2005 5:53 PM

Sounds like a Chinese Charles Dickens would have a wealth of material.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 26, 2005 6:58 PM

Look for the life expectancy in China to start dropping (it may already be). The pollution is getting worse, even in the countryside, and the 'modern' working environment is proving to be horrible. The last time I was there, the Great Wall directly north of Beijing was like LA in July (i.e., one could not see the next range across the valley).

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 26, 2005 7:49 PM

This story can't be true. China is a socialist workers paradise.

Posted by: Bob at January 27, 2005 10:20 AM