Mar 27, 2016

To many, the phrase “rural migrant workers” evokes an image of poor, rustic laborers, bullied by urban bosses and toiling under severe working conditions for next-to-nothing wages. Worn-down and alienated, they try their best to make ends meet, with no possibility of enjoying life or envisioning a bright future. Faced with this grim reality, some workers rebel, while others remain helpless.

These are the typical images of rural migrant workers presented by academics and the media. But the image of migrants as passive victims does not match the impression I formed after ten months of research, during which I observed and communicated closely with more than 200 rural migrant workers in three factories, each with unique characteristics and working conditions, in the cities of Changzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai.

I still remember my surprise when I first visited the Changzhou factory. Since this factory manufactures high-tech equipment, it benefits from a sales premium, meaning the factory owners can pay their workers relatively well and oversee them less stringently. Moreover, rather than being confined to assembly lines, workers can walk around freely, use clean restrooms, drink water from water dispensers, and chat with each other — provided production is not interrupted. Workers are even allotted ten minutes every two hours to hang out in a specially designed smoking room.

I have to confess that these freedoms were at odds with what I had imagined, and I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance that, interestingly, the workers seemed to share. Many of them said to me: “You should visit factories like Foxconn. There won’t be much for you to study here.” But I had come to Changzhou to study rural migrant workers — and weren’t these people rural migrant workers? Surely I was in the right place. 
However, as I became more familiar with the workers’ lives, my surprise only increased. Far from the dull and depressing lives of the rural migrant workers of the public’s imagination, the lives of these workers seemed quite “normal” to me. 

Continuing to use rural migrant workers in Foxconn-like factories as a representative sample of such a massive group fails to account for those who are simply not so miserable.

Long, a 35-year-old worker from Hubei province, was a little annoyed when I persisted in asking him about his previous work experience — details such as when he first left home and when he found his current job. “Who remembers the boring stuff?” he protested. “I only remember when and where I have traveled and had fun!” It turns out that Long loves traveling, and he has been to many famous tourist sites all over China. Long's wages may be low, but they still allow him to support a family and travel occasionally. As he puts it, “A little simple traveling doesn’t cost that much.” Surprisingly, Long’s positive tone proved not to be an outlier among his peers. Most rural migrant workers I talked to in the Changzhou factory — all men in their early 20s to late 40s — plan their work lives and home lives thoughtfully to make the best of the resources available to them, especially in terms of consumption. They go to movies, shop online and at stores, play video games, chat with friends on their smartphones, play mahjong, go hiking, and drive to parks for weekend barbecues, and so on. 
Similarly, the rural migrant workers I encountered at the Shenzhen factory — another branch of the same enterprise — struck me as being even livelier and even more resourceful, probably thanks to Shenzhen’s metropolitanism and well-documented economic development. 
One exceptional case is Yue, a 24-year-old man who loves reading philosophy. You wouldn’t recognize Yue as a rural migrant worker on the weekend, when he takes off his uniform, puts on a T-shirt and jeans, and goes to the library with a backpack slung over his shoulder. As he walks off, Yue blends in perfectly among the throngs of college students congregating around the front entrance. 

At first glance, one might attribute these heartening anecdotes to good working conditions. But hold that thought as we move on to the third garment factory, this one on the outskirts of Shanghai. Here I encountered long hours, production lines, low wages, and an alarming lack of standard benefits, such as health insurance. Yet even under such comparably poor conditions, the rural migrant workers — all female — seemed to deviate a great deal from their common perception as helpless victims. 

During the first few weeks I began to feel a natural sympathy toward these women — so you can imagine how shocked and saddened I was to hear that they had been gossiping about me behind my back, calling me ignorant despite my college education. 

This unpleasant experience led me to realize the complicated group politics and personal enmities among the female workers. While not exactly positive, both of these variables certainly challenge the popular perception that rural migrant workers are simple and helpless.
One day, Zhang, a 48-year-old factory worker from Guizhou province, received a new down coat she had bought online. As Zhang excitedly tried on the coat, her friend Mei, 35, another worker coming from Anhui province, whispered to me: “Look at her! Zhang doesn’t make much money, but she buys one coat after another as if she were rich!” Mei rolled her eyes before turning to Zhang with a big smile on her face and shouting, “That really is a beautiful coat though!” This case was one of many examples I encountered of the Shanghai factory’s female workers receiving goods they had purchased online — a trend consistent with the culture of consumerism I had also found in the Changzhou and Shenzhen factories.
I had gone into the factories assuming I would hear personal accounts rife with bitterness and indignation, and while I did hear some stories like this, my overarching impression was that the factory workers I encountered were actually not so different from the people with whom I interact on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, the stock story of the repressed and suffering rural migrant workers still rings true in other contexts. But at the same time, the findings of my research suggest the need for a more diverse and balanced perception of this group, and for two reasons. 

First, while focusing on the victimization of rural migrant workers encourages political mobilization and attracts public attention, this oversimplified image fails to portray them realistically, as active social agents like you and me, and, morally speaking, neither better nor worse as individuals. Seeing them as naive and humble “others” reinforces a misguided perception, largely among the middle class and the academic elites, whose condescending and romanticized objectification of the group should be questioned. A change in public perception would be a step in the right direction, challenging people to view rural migrant workers as regular people with whom we should more closely identify. 
Second, as some Chinese enterprises become richer and more competitive, they begin turning away from industries that rely on exploiting labor inhumanely for profit. While I am not suggesting that the better benefits and the relatively humane treatment provided by some Chinese enterprises will fundamentally undo the power balance between capital and labor, continuing to use rural migrant workers in Foxconn-like factories as a representative sample of such a massive group fails to account for those who are simply not so miserable. 
My experiences and conclusions raise the question: Among the 200 million rural migrant workers accounted for by the national census data, how many of them, with money to spend and places to shop, still feel so repressed that they would respond to a Marxist-style mobilization of the working class? 
(Because all interviews with migrant workers were intended for academic purposes, no full names are reproduced here.) 

(Header image: Migrant workers on an assembly line in a smartphone factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, Dec. 24, 2015.  Liu Xingzhe/Sixth Tone)