Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Profile in Reverse Migration

The following article is a lengthy profile on a young migrant worker and the current state of flux that she and China's migrants are in as the world economy crumbles. I recommend clicking on the link and reading the whole article.

From Der Spiegel:

The promise of prosperity lured Quan Xiaoju from her home in rural China to the assembly lines in the bustling city of Guangzhou. Now, like countless other migrant workers, she is heading back home as the jobs dry up and China's boom comes to an end.

As she bids farewell to Guangzhou, a city of nine million people, there is hardly enough time for a wistful look back -- at the teeming crowds of migrant workers with copious amounts of luggage in front of the city's train station, or at its bold downtown highway, built on stilts, and still packed with cars despite the economic crisis.

The crowd pushes forward relentlessly, literally forcing Quan Xiaoju to enter the station. Xiaoju, a petite migrant worker, quickly places her belongings -- a black-and-white plaid suitcase and a small plastic bag -- on the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint before being pushed onward, then up an escalator and into one of the enormous waiting rooms.

China's global factory is shedding its slave-like workers, cost-effectively and efficiently, almost as if they too were products on an assembly line. They sit in long rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for the trains that will take them back to their home provinces, to the places they once left for China's industrial east, lured by the promise of prosperity. Xiaoju (her name means "Little Chrysanthemum") finally has time to catch her breath and look around. She has a few more minutes left before her northbound train to Hengyang, in Hunan Province, is scheduled to depart.

The station is busy as it would normally be before the Chinese New Year, when companies in Guangdong Province -- the enormous export factory that borders Hong Kong and includes the burgeoning large cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan -- collectively send armies of migrant workers home on vacation. But this time the exodus is involuntary and unforeseen, and likely to last for an extended period of time -- and the mood is understandably gloomy.

Read On
Xiao Ju's story breaks my heart. The circumstances of her existence is so bleak:

A daughter of poor farmers born into China's dying countryside. Goes to the big city to work in a factory where she's given the opportunity to slave away for miniscule sums of money. Then one day she's told to go home. Not because of any problem of her creation. But because nobody wants the shoddy jewelry she makes anymore. She then has nothing left to do but return back to the bleak rural poverty of her home village.

It's even more gut-wrenching when you think about the millions of people like Xiao Ju who are in her exact same predicament.

At the end of the article, Xiao Ju laments that the life she dreamed of one day having in Guangzhou is gone. But she seems confident that one day she'll have the chance, again, to find work in a southern Chinese factory.

Ironically, in Xiao Ju's life, slavery in a factory is freedom. Working seven days a week with toxic chemicals making low-quality goods for pennies an hour is the beacon of hope in her, otherwise, doomed existence.

Such is the tragedy of China's rural migrant population.


Anonymous said...

The conditions are terrible but I'd advise against using the term slavery. I know it seems to be splitting hairs to request slavish working conditions instead, but she does have a choice which makes her *not* a slave and she would like to choose this factory over her home conditions.

That said those conditions can and should be improved, hopefully by smart companies who voluntarily realize that certain conditions for workers ultimately result in better production (attracting and retaining the best workers, less defects and many others)and thus higher profits.
In both cases, it's choice.

Mark said...

I understand what you mean here, Taylor.

I thought the world slavery was not 100% correct for the reasons you stated. Nobody is, in fact, forcing her to work in a factory.

De facto slavery might be a better term. She could either waste away in a village with no hope or go to the factory where conditions are unbelievably bad.

Nikolas Kristof, the China hand from the New York Times, has an interesting piece on what we're talking about found here -