Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: migrant worker
Friday, 24 August 2012 14:27

Photographing the Proletariat: An Interview with Ho Ching-tai and Chang Jung-lung

Documentary photographers Ho Ching-tai and Chang Jung-lung give us an exciting debate upon photography and its influence on society, as well as the "exploitative" relationship between the photographer and his subject...

Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

Next stop on the Denim Express … Struggletown

On a recent long distance train trip in China, a budding entrepreneur and proud patriot asked me if my country had any factories.

“Sure”, I said, “we’ve got a few, but not as many as China does”.


“That’s right!” he quickly retorted.


“Because of OUR factories YOU have a good lifestyle and WE have a lot of hardship!”


He expressed these views very forthrightly and had no doubt about whose favour the Chinese balance of trade was in.  Perhaps my new friend’s family had felt some strain from China’s rapid industrialisation.  After all, he was making a 15 hour train journey to return home to his young family after working in Beijing.


Last Train Home screened at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung and gave me a new perspective on my earlier encounter on the train.  The cinema was almost full and arriving late, I had to find a seat in the front row.  Seated behind me were a bunch of 10 year olds, probably attending as part of a school excursion.  To begin with they were merrily chatting away, no doubt wishing they were watching a cartoon, and oblivious to the projections of the grim cityscapes of China’s south-eastern megacities.  But it didn’t take too long for them to be drawn into the story, wide-eyed and silently absorbed by the unfolding tragedy.


Presenting the tale of the Zhang family – parents toiling in a jeans factory in Guangdong, kids raised by their grandparents in rural Sichuan – Last Train Home is a bleak look at life in modern China.  As the story develops over 6 years, we see the characters evolve against the dual backdrops of the urban and the rural: sewing machines and tiny bedrooms alternating with cornfields and crumbling and damp farmhouses.


The story is very engaging, despite some of the dialogue appearing a bit too staged.  Flashes of brutality alternate with misguided optimism, all the while dreams are torn apart and the scraps reshaped, like denim off-cuts salvaged from the factory floor and haphazardly stitched together into something new.


The cinematography is artful throughout, generating a strong sense of place. The scenes at Guangzhou train station during the Chinse New Year are particularly powerful. We see hordes of travellers stranded as the rail grid is thrown into turmoil by inclement weather, progressively getting anxious as the narrow window of time they have to return to their hometowns grows ever smaller.  The claustrophobia of the crammed station and tension of the travellers as they jostle for space is palpable.


Last Train Home is a gruelling look at the flipside of China’s year on year 10% economic growth.  The Zhang family are just some of the many millions manning the machines that drive China’s economic juggernaut.  At times harrowing, this is a film that will appeal to anyone seeking an alternative perspective on China’s economic miracle.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 05:02

Migrations from Liangshan: New Data

eRenlai has published a series of articles on Yi migrants. The team of the magazine also gives regular news about the Yangjuan primary school and the area where it is located, i.e. Yanyuan county in Liangshan autonomous prefecture, southwestern Sichuan.

As it is the case every summer, a team of volunteers went to the school in July and August. This was an opportunity to collect new data on migrations from this area to other parts of China. Here are a few findings, which can give some light on changes taking place when it comes to the relationship between peripheral regions and urban areas.
Among the 107 families living in Yangjuan proper (units 5 and 6 of Baiwu First Village), 61 have members with migrant experience. 81 villagers went out looking for jobs, and 60 of them are currently on their migrant endeavor. Actually, migrants from Yangjuan can roughly be put into two categories---‘the younger migrants’ and ‘the bread-earning migrants’.

There are currently 26 migrants belonging to the younger generation’. Most of them joined the labor migration directly after leaving school (not necessarily until graduation), which also means that they were not the breadwinner of the family. So they do not need so much to compensate their leaving by providing their family with cash. In fact, only a few of them could save some money and send it home.
As a matter of fact, a group of Yi workers who were introduced by friends from afar into a factory of Shanghai consists mostly of girls who, when leaving home hadn’t finished junior high. They left home in spite of doubts or objections within the family, with the dream of living a comfortable city life. But very soon it turned out that money is much more difficult to earn than they thought, and that there are a number of problems to deal with, such as the boiling weather in summer, suburb lifestyle, language, discrimination, homesickness, strict regulation in the factory… However, they gradually learn to get along with Han people, practice Mandarin, pay rent and bill, and surf the Internet. At least, they keep themselves warm and fed, and to a certain extent, some even enjoy the factory life. Each month they earn about 1300 yuan on average, but one year has passed since they started working and several of them failed to save any money. They also see the importance of skill, knowledge, and certificates (Wenping) in one’s career. In the course of their work, few skills can be learned. Within one year they only have one chance to go back home and stay for a short period. Most of them don’t have a long-term plan about the future, they just intend to stay in the factory for some time. When it comes to farm work, some say they “can’t and don’t know how to farm.”

Other young migrants are males now still working in factories or construction sites in places such as Shenzhen and Henan. They do not save much money either. Many of those working in Shenzhen factories are not as lucky as their countrymen in Shanghai. Usually they follow brokers to the factory. There they often work more than 10 hours a day and then earn less than 30 Yuan, from which the brokers will take away 2~3 Yuan. Moreover, the food and housing provided by the factories are rustic, and they barely have labor insurances.

After having been cheated by the job recruiter and having gotten seriously sick in her migration to Shenzhen, one young woman has the following comments:
‘When I decided to work outside, many people opposed the plan, especially my father, who said migration was not what I thought it was. And some people coming back home also tried to persuade me that life out there is hard for most migrants. But I didn’t take in a single word of them, still dreaming that I could be among the few lucky ones and earn money easily… Now I’ve got bad health and spent thousands on medicine, and I deeply regret having migrated. I finally realize that my father had told me the truth! But there are still more young people migrating, including my cousins. I tell them about my experience and try to persuade them not to do so, but they just don’t listen to me and insist on leaving, just like what I did when I migrated…”

The other category of Yangjuan migrants are the bread earners. The cash entailed by children’s education, the increasing cost of farming, the unfavorable weather… all these factors prompt these villagers to buttress their families’ economy by seeking money from outside. Some of them hand their land over to other family members (old parents or wives) and seek additional income from outside. Others have comparatively more land so they leave home only when the busy farming seasons are over. Their goal is simply to bring money home, so they accept unfavorable working condition as long as the pay is high enough. And, unlike the younger migrants, the financial pressure keeps them from spending money on seeking and trying novel things.

Recently, Zhengzhou has become a hot spot for these bread earners. They follow brokers to different construction sites, working more than 10 hours a day, and being paid 140~180RMB by the brokers, who have already extracted a portion (about 10%~25%) from their original earning. If the brokers can’t find work for them in the construction sites, the migrants have to wait, consuming their own money. Some of them spend almost all their savings waiting, and then come back home with empty hands. They often try hard to learn professional knowledge through practice. Also, the pressure and competition at work as well as the high wages for skilled workers enable them to learn skills such as bending steel with machines and woodwork. Some brokers still try avoiding to give the migrants the money they should receive. Many Yangjuan migrants want to go to Zhengzhou because it is pictured as a place with “good’ brokers.

Last year, the prices of farming necessities surged, lessening further the profit of farming. The phosphate fertilizer rose from 20~25 Yuan per bag to 48~50 Yuan, and the corn seeds from less than 7 Yuan/kilogram to 38 Yuan. Some migrants invest their earnings on these highly-priced farming necessities, but the unpredictable weather exerts another risk on the harvest. Ma Linjun, who because of poor health had to come back home, says that, nowadays, compared to the profit brought by farming, earning money through migration seems not that bad. On the other hand, the high price of meat stimulates in the villagers an impulse to find some capital for raising animals. Ali Vuda is one of them. Although in his last labor migration he was cheated by the broker and got 1800 Yuan less than was promised, he still plans to go out because he believes that this time he will be more careful and may find a better broker. He says that once he has saved thirty thousand Yuan he will raise pigs on a large scale. He would spend about 10 thousand on 5 sows, another 10 thousand on the shed, and the rest on forage. He says the buckwheat and corn in his field could be used to feed pigs, and his family, in turn, would sell the young pigs at high price and then buy rice to eat. By then, he says, he would never go out, because seeing the colorful life outside would just make him feel sad about himself. Though they migrate for different reasons, both Ma Linjun and Ali Vuda are family bread earners, adjusting their income in order to fit in with the increasing commodity prices.

Ma Pengchen calls himself a veteran of labor migration in Yangjuan. At the age of 17 he started working outside and has been doing so off and on for almost ten years. He has been to places such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wenzhou, Zhengzhou and Tianjin, as well as some other parts of Sichuan. He helps with farming at home in the busy seasons, and migrates at other time, leaving the comparatively easier farm work to his parents. In the early years, he was no different from other young migrants, spending almost all his earnings before coming home. But later on he began to save money for his family, especially since he decided to get married. Till now he has brought about 40 to 50 thousand Yuan back home. When he worked in a factory in Shenzhen, the broker refused to pay the promised wages, alleging that he himself had no money. It was after several quarrels that he finally paid Ma the long-delayed 1400 RMB. Ma plans to leave again soon: he says that, by growing crops and taking care of the animals, his family has a daily average income of about 12 Yuan, while his bending steel skills can bring him more than 100 Yuan of net income in a single day. He also wants to grow some walnut trees at home, because he finds that a big walnut tree may bring in about 4000~5000 Yuan each year (after they are grown, it takes four years before walnut trees begin to bear fruit). He says that growing walnut trees and migration can bring him quite a good income, but he needs to carefully distribute his time and energy between the two in order to optimize the benefit. He urges his nephew, who has been herding the family goats after dropping out of primary school, to go back to school, pointing out that only going back to school can bring about a brighter future for the nephew, and that the bottom line is to finish his junior high.

With different mentalities, both the younger migrants and the migrant family bread earners start on their journeys of seeking fortune away from home. Differences in their desires and responsibilities explain for the variety of outcomes. Presently, some youths from Yangjuan are advancing towards graduation from high school. Consequently, new trends in migration may emerge, and a third category of labor migrants will come into being. In a few years of time, we will see how various educational tracks determine the young migrants’ career paths and their future lives.

PDF version

Friday, 28 September 2007 00:10

Ethnic migrant workers in China today

Ethnic minority communities are experiencing the impact of social transformations at work in the whole of China. People – especially young people - leave for the cities in search of jobs. Minority villagers usually know little about life in the city, they are often handicapped by a poor knowledge of Chinese, and, consequently, face strong difficulties in making their living in a world that is totally new to them. They stay away from their village for a few weeks, a few months or a few years. After they come back they often wait for another opportunity to leave and find a job. Most often, they lack resources to engage in local development projects and have a pessimistic outlook on their future at home. In other words, the needs and difficulties faced by ethnic minority migrant workers are multifaceted: they comprise
(a) the lack or the very poor quality of the formal education received before they have left;
(b) the general problems met by migrant workers all over China (housing, working conditions, lack of work contracts, healthcare…);
(c) additional difficulties linked to their cultural and linguistic estrangement;
(d) lack of sustainable community projects at home, which also means
(e) lack of long-term perspectives and subsequent difficulty in formulating a personal project.

Migrants do bring back some (modest) financial capital and practical experience to the places where they come from, but these resources are often wasted or under utilized. In any case, their pledge is to be understood in the general context of Chinese rural migration towards the cities. An estimated 150 million Chinese rural workers are currently living and working in cities. Their number has risen rapidly and is expected to grow even further, with some estimating 300 million by 2015. The household registration system requires them to register with local authorities as temporary residents. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable. School and healthcare fees have also a disproportionate impact on migrant workers. And most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor.

At the same time, as the interviews recorded here show, there is a resilience and a sense of purpose in many migrant workers that should make us hope that the migration movement that is still affecting China will also enhance the creativity of the ones who are exposed to new surroundings and experiences. Better legal implementation and renewed formation structures are needed. What is especially needed is the liberation of social energy, eventually allowing for the reinforcement of real local communities, able to take in charge their own destiny.

Thursday, 27 September 2007 02:28

Voices of Yi Migrant Workers

Let us listen directly to what Yi migrant workers have to tell us. These testimonies come from Yanyuan county, Liangshan prefecture. Most of the people who are interviewed here have been working outside their village, and prepare themselves to leave it again...

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Wednesday, 04 April 2007 00:00

Migrant Workers and Local Development

The migration of young people from the Chinese countryside to cities raises a number of questions about the future of rural and mountainous areas. Will this exodus create deserted areas, without working force and creativity, or will these youth come back to transform and energize their place of origins? Here are a few reflections that come from my experience as an intermediary for developing sourcing of Chinese products by foreign companies. I often say to my clients that the labour cost in China should remain stable in the coming years as there is a large reservoir in China’s countryside – though I am starting to wonder whether the supply is so large after all.


I like to discuss with migrant workers at our suppliers’ place. Generally speaking, they are happy with their situation even if social safety net is lacking. The typical young migrant worker stays in the city for 3 to 5 years and then returns home for marrying a local woman. I remember the night watchman of a small brush joint-venture in Tianjin, he was so happy to have found this job: “My life is very comfortable here, I have heating and a shower, and I can eat 3 hot meals a day, my wife is working in the factory during the day when I sleep; in the evening, when the workers are back home, the general manager gives us the opportunity to produce more brushes. I have the chance to be with my wife at night when she sleeps, I look after the factory and can make more brushes, together we get 4 salaries each month probably 20 fold what we would earn in our village; after 3 years I will be back to my hometown near Yan’an, then I can buy the largest cave house of the village with a small plot of arable land and have a quite life with my friends for the rest of my life.”


These workers learn a lot and will certainly bring back know-how. I believe that the recent development of Chinese countryside comes from such people. Nearly all of them are going home for each Chinese New Year, and many do not come back afterwards, even if they promised to do so. Only the cleverest ones will go up in the hierarchy or start their own company and stay in the city. The ones who speak English will have a greater chance to stay, and will get far higher pay, these as white collars have few chance to go back.

The employers I meet have more and more difficulties to find workers (more in Guangdong who seem to pay less than in Shanghai area), and some decide to move their factories inland to follow the workmanship. Some of my clients hesitate to purchase from suppliers who require extensive overtime from their workers, but the workers prefer to work more during a short period and get a better pay. I therefore ask myself: why should we consider overtime on a year per year basis? Working double time during three years and then having a 3 years holiday at home might come to the same...

Summing up, migration is a decision taken by an individual within the frame of possibilities offered to him or her. It is also largely a side effect of schooling and development, directly or … indirectly: The creation of a primary school in a remote village often goes with the introduction of electricity in the village, electricity allowed for the purchase of TV sets, and TV spread the use of Mandarin language, which enabled people to find jobs out of their home place (statistics tell us that still less than half of Chinese people speak correct mandarin !)

The development of local initiative in the countryside, partly due to the coming home of migrant workers, should be progressive and based on local initiative. Tourism is certainly a service industry with much potential, as can be seen in many places of China. Let me give here some examples:
Songpan: the main attraction is a horse team started and developed by a local; they propose horse treks (2 to 15 days) at 100Y/ person/ day all inclusive, one guide will accompany 2 visitors and supply horse, tent & sleeping bag, the team supplies the food.
TLG (Tiger leaping Gorge) near Lijiang: many simple private inns developed aside the gorge providing food, accommodation and guides. It seems it developed completely from private initiative with the help of some backpackers.
"Nongjiale" in the suburbs of Peking, Shanghai, Chengdu,… designed mainly for town people wishing to spend one week-end enjoying bio fresh food in the countryside, some offering fishing.
Heshun near Tengchong (Yunnan at the border of Burma) is an example of the development of old villages. Heshun is so isolated that it can cater only to Yunnan people. It has 5 to 10 private hotels, many restaurants, it developed some commerce of souvenirs, and reactivated the local customs of which the locals are very proud.
Once again, economic development starts from local developers. Helpers from outside can still organize task forces for support: teaching project management, giving and exchanging ideas, and providing some technical know-how on management and marketing.


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