HUBEI, Central China — Every day, Huang Hongxia’s son makes his homework to the background music of her and her colleagues’ incessantly whirring sewing machines.
Huang, 42, works in the factory of “Plus Ten” clothing, in Wuhan’s mostly rural Huangpi District. Every day at 8 a.m., she gets on her bicycle and takes her young son to school before heading to work at the factory. Later in the day, she’ll pop out during her shift to pick him up after class. She’ll then clear a small area beside her sewing machine where he sits and does his homework.
Such a flexible work schedule is unimaginable in most Chinese companies.
Huang Hongxia ties her phone to the sewing machine so she knows when it’s time to go pick up her son from school, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Once years ago, Huang’s eldest daughter had a high fever. But the factory where Huang then worked wouldn’t let her take time off as it was the busy order season. In the end, her mother-in-law had to be called in to take the girl to the hospital in the city center. All the while, Huang’s daughter missed her mom.
Similar anecdotes are common among the workers at Plus Ten, which currently employs nearly 200 women, all working mothers — a deliberate hiring strategy. The company’s boss, Xiang Jingyan, chose to build the factory near local schools and kindergartens and allow flexible hours as well as employees bringing children to work. Workers tend to arrive early and leave later than scheduled, voluntarily making up for the time they spend on family duties.
The women working here all have comparable life trajectories. When they were young, they all left their hometowns together with their husbands in search of better-paying work. After they had children, they first left them in the care of their grandparents for a few years. Not much later, they would quit work and move back home to look after their families.
Xiang Jingyan talks to clients in the factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Xiang also followed this route, which allows her to keenly understand the conundrum faced by China’s blue-collar working mothers: Holding down a factory job makes it impossible to care for one’s children, while staying at home leads to social isolation and a loss of economic independence. Combining the two is near impossible. Factory workers are expected to make long days according to strict schedules, and Chinese schools commonly let out hours before parents’ workdays end.
Cao Wei is originally from Shaanxi province, and moved to Huangpi District in Wuhan after getting married. She found her current job managing orders and deliveries. She likes that there are desks and chairs set up in the warehouse for the children to do their homework. Dropping out of school at a young age has been a lifelong regret for her, and so she hopes that she can help her son go to university.
The monthly sales at Plus Ten’s clothing factory, which opened in 2018, have recently increased rapidly, and the original space set aside for workers’ children to study had to be taken over by orders awaiting shipment. Xiang now plans to create a dedicated room. But, it seems the children don’t really mind either way — they’re happy enough doing their homework leaning on their mothers’ workbench, since that way they get to work alongside them.
The mothers feel much the same. Huang’s days have much improved since she began working at Plus Ten more than three years ago. “I don’t have to listen to my children crying anymore every time I leave the house — that was heartwrenching,” she says.
A flower on a sewing machine, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Huang Hongxia works in front of a sewing machine, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Stock in the factory of Plus Ten, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Huang Hongxia takes her son home to eat dinner after work, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Former Plus Ten employees visit the factory with their newborn children, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
A Plus Ten employee and her son, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
A worker’s varnished toenails, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Xiaobao helps his mother with some basic tasks in the Plus Ten factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
The Plus Ten factory workers consider each other sisters, and will often help colleagues pick up their children, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Children run and play in the courtyard of the Plus Ten factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Zijun, 15, looks after his younger brother while their mother is working, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Work continues after nightfall at the Plus Ten factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Children wait for their mothers to get off work, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Ten Plus boss Xiang Jingyan inside her factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Luo Ying rents a room upstairs in the factory. Close to her son’s school, it makes it easier for her to work overtime, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
A child plays by herself in the Plus Ten factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Tianyi does his homework on his mother Huang Hongxia’s workbench, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Cao Wei is responsible for packing and dispatching in the factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
Children’s doodles on the wall of Ten Plus’ factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng
A version of this article was originally published by White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Tianyi accompanies his mother Huang Hongxia in the Plus Ten factory, June 2021. Courtesy of Lü Meng)