A Migrant Worker Strikes Back

Thanks to Jenny Zhu of Chinesepod, we’ve been made aware of an interesting migrant worker blog.  Migrant workers coming from the countryside fill construction sites in every major city.  They face poor working conditions, low wages (although considerably higher than in the rural areas where they come from) and urban residents’ discrimination.  Locals here in Beijing blame them for everything from the piles of trash that fill hutongs to spitting (as if Beijingers don’t hock their fair share of loogies).

Here is an excerpt from a post by Wan Xiaodao, a migrant worker in his 20s, who defends the migrant workers’ profession.


Many people don’t believe that I’m a migrant worker.  A few people have even taken to calling me names.  Someone said: “Don’t fear bullies and don’t fear landlords.  Only fear an educated migrant worker 不怕地主和恶霸,就怕民工有文化.”  As far as they know, migrant workers are supposed to be ignorant and easy to control.  Even if I became president like Obama, I would still consider myself a migrant worker.  These words might sound tragic to some.  But we migrant workers shouldn’t be ashamed of ourselves.  We should be proud of who we are.

I became a migrant worker because I didn’t want to do anything against my conscience.  I’ve worked plenty of jobs that city folk think are respectable (or at least jobs they think are more respectable than being a migrant worker).  But none of these jobs gave me the peace of mind that being a migrant worker does.  Coming from a farming family, I don’t want to do bad things that will harm other people’s image of farmers.  Now I’m going to talk about the experiences I’ve had working so-called “respectable” jobs.

After dropping out of college, I was a small-time manager at a factory in Jiangsu.  Everyday I dealt with bringing in goods and sending out the finished products.  I filled out forms and wrote up bills.  In my spare time, I cleaned up the factory house and wrote some pretty crappy fiction.  This job was actually quite enjoyable.  My three managers, however, made the job miserable.  These three managers were all very close with the the heads of the factory.  They were always trying to outmaneuver each other to get promotions and would constantly cause problems for each other.  In the beginning, I really liked it.  It was like getting to read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for free.  These three managers each tried to get me to take his side.  The productions manager was always trying to make me write bad things about the business manager.  The assistant manager was no slouch either.  He would try to get me to go over my other two managers’ heads and say bad things about them to the general manager.  The assistant manager said that if I helped him out, after we squeezed out the other two managers, I would get promoted.  I don’t know what kind of person this job was turning me into.  I decided I didn’t want to be a manager at all.  Even though my managers weren’t very old, you could already see their heads full of white hair.  They were working themselves to death every day.  They had to defend themselves from attack while launching their own assaults on other people at the same time.  After I had worked there six months, they all got fired.  

[Ed. Note: The post goes on to detail two other experiences that we don’t have room for here.}

After all this, I reached a conclusion: if you want to survive in the immoral (丑陋) city, you have to become a scheming immoral person.  My mother used to say, “You have to be a good person.  If you can’t help people, at least don’t hurt them.”  So I’m perfectly content with being a migrant worker.  We shower together from the same pipe in unfinished apartment buildings.  We drink and play cards in smelly migrant worker camps.  We risk our lives dozens of storeys above ground working on skyscrapers. 

But I still think it’s a happy, full life.

0 thoughts on “A Migrant Worker Strikes Back”

  1. Seeing that nobody here had anything to say on this topic, I’ll say something. I have translated academic reports on the schooling of children of migrant workers in big cities such as BJ, SH and whatever, and it made me worried about the future of those kids. Fortunately many colleges and univs in Beijing have volunteer programs designed to help private schools specially for those children and I’ve attended some seminars with the volunteers. I hope these programs could be extended to middle schools and primary schools as well in order to let the middle-class (or as the western media like to say for the past two decades, the “new” middle-class – it’s always “new” as if it’s surprising or something) kids realize that some children their age live a different life.


  2. I dont know why the heck Chinese government still hasnt set up certain laws to protect migrant workers, like preventing later payment.

    (Note : that is why I am not fans of those so called human right activitists or attention seekers, they always have big mouths on individuals issues, but turn blind eyes to the issues that affect thousands or millions of people.)


  3. Interesting post. It is true that you often see groups of migrant workers at the side of the road smoking, drinking, playing cards…and they are almost always laughing and shouting and smiling with each other. That is not to say that their situation is therefore fine and doesn’t need any improvement. Obviously their wages (when they receive them) and their living conditions are pretty dire in many circumstances, especially the ones working in construction. At the same time, I think this story illustrates something very interesting that many Chinese have told me. Rich Chinese (i.e. the class of managers or above)) don’t really have any true friends, except maybe some old schoolmates they were involved with before they became “successful.” Rather, they use everybody around them to constantly try to climb the ladder to the top, often even their own families. I’m willing to bet that the migrant worker in the story, and others like him, have a much more fulfilling social network they can rely upon in hard times than the “white-haired” managers who can’t see anything but their larger future paychecks. Nevertheless, most of the poor workers would still probably give it all up to be in those graying manager’s shoes.


  4. Speaking of payments, I have personal experience, well not so much personal as I have a direct relative who’s in charge of such issues in his town. Maybe it’s because we’re in Beijing, a place that absolutely doesn’t allow “disharmony,” but his government agency tries its best to prod businesses to pay the migrant workers just so nobody takes it to the streets. But of course Beijing is special in that the commies want to present the city to the world, which makes it very very safe walking on the streets at midnight in Beijing.


  5. There are pushes by the government every year to make employers pay the wages they owe to migrants, especially around Spring Festival, when people from rural areas return home. The Labor Contract Law has added some teeth to these drives by giving more migrants a way to prove their employment… but there are still so many ways that a construction site boss can skip town or intimidate workers with thugs or pull connections.

    Workers need their own voice, not just better laws or better enforcement. This is how it has worked in other countries and in China’s own history. Part of the problem as I see it is that the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has been slow to recognize migrant workers as “workers” and allow itself to be a channel for their grievances.

    Ultimately, the most hopeful thing for migrants may be the kind of worker community that Chinalbeit mentions above, with all its mutual aid traditions. The sympathy for workers felt by a lot of middle class folks is also encouraging—-more sympathy than is shown for, say, immigrant workers in the U.S. Still, it’s a pretty bad situation…


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