A touching reflection by Fei GAO, a Duke University student who spent her summer in South China last year. Her article shows a glance of workers suffering from work injuries and the exploitation under the mark of “Made in China”. The article was first printed on Duke East Asia Nexus 4(1).


Workers of the World’s Factory             Fei GAO

Reprinted from Duke East Asia Nexus 4(1): 133-38 © 2013.


China’s rural to urban migration for the past two decades is the largest human migration in history. It became the “world factory” with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform policies. However, as China awed the world with its rapid economic development, reports generally fail to mention the millions of internal-migrant workers who will not be able to take advantage of this economic boom. Those who made a significant contribution to China’s growing economy are in fact the same people who are living on the fringes of society and working in horrific conditions in factories, construction sites, and so on.

Only in recent years have scholars begun to study and understand this population that’s often hidden from view—voiceless and without representation. In 2010, Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronic manufacturer for major brand names—such as Apple, Dell and Toshiba—caught the world’s attention when thirteen young migrant workers in Shenzhen attempted suicide all within a period of five months.

In the summer of 2013, I set out on a two-month journey, traveling through six cities in China, in an attempt to understand the labor activism issues there. Below is an account of my experience at the Southern Sparrow NGO in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China. Please note that I have changed the names of individuals in this piece, in order to protect their privacy.

How much does the life of a Chinese migrant cost?

Ding! The elevator came to a halt and the silver-colored doors slid open. We had reached the fourth floor, and I stepped out to see a washed-up, light blue banner hanging from the ceiling. Ten Chinese characters, written in red and outlined in white, read Nan Fei Yan She Hui Gong Zuo Fu Wu Bu with its English translation underneath, in a smaller, black font: Southern Sparrow Social Work Service Center. This non-government organization (NGO) based in Guangzhou, Guangdong was established in December of 2009 with the purpose of safeguarding the rights and interests of migrant laborers by providing free legal advice and litigation courses to workers and their families. Its main goal is to enhance the workers’ legal awareness, thus empowering them to demand better treatment. After several attempts at arranging a visit, the opportunity for one finally arose when the main director, Xu Xiaobo, told me about a law consulting session for local migrant workers. I had been picturing this moment all morning—what the office space would look like, how the migrant workers would act, how the law advisers would explain China’s complicated legal system in colloquial language, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.

There was no air conditioning inside and I could feel my cotton tee shirt clinging to my back as soon as I stepped into the hall. Without much hesitation, I strode up to three NGO workers sitting behind a long table with sign-in sheets. One of them lifted her head, bit off a dry flake of skin from her bottom lip, and smiled. She looked like she was around my age, with rounded shoulders, and was wearing a light blue Southern Sparrow t-shirt that was way too big for her. As I walked closer, I could clearly see a trail of sweat trickling down the side of her face, causing her thick-rimmed glasses to slide down repeatedly. “Hello! I’m Gao Fei, a third year college student from the U.S,” I introduced myself. “I spoke on the phone with Miss Xu yesterday, and she suggested that I come observe today’s law consulting session.” Her eyes lit up in recognition. In one swift, continuous motion, she gave a slight nod, pushed up her glasses, and stuck out both hands to shake mine: “Hello, hello! Welcome! Did you find this place okay? Come in, come in, sit down and join us.”

Xu guided me into one of the conference rooms, which was already filled with fifty or so migrant workers. A sour smell of sweat reached my nostrils and I fought back the urge to cringe. Large windows stretched across the entire back wall. Sunlight shone through, softened by the peach colored, silky curtains. The laborers sat on colorful, plastic stools of various heights that loosely formed a messy circle of three rows. A few looked up curiously as we entered the room, but most continued chatting with their neighbors without noticing us. Most of them seemed to be in their late twenties to early thirties and two-thirds of the group was comprised of men. A small boy in black and yellow striped sweats acted out battle scenes with his action figures on the floor by the door.

Looking around, I realized that the people around me did not quite fit the stereotype of “migrant laborers” I had in mind, conjured from literary works and the media. They were not in ragged, old clothes full of patches nor did they look depressed and stressed out. In fact, some of the women had dyed and permed their hair, resulting in light-brown, loose curls, and others had their hair styled with decorative hair pieces. Their clothes looked similar to my own wardrobe and I found myself admiring some of their jewelry. The men had a wider variety of clothes, from sandals and scrubs to leather-looking oxford shoes and button-up short sleeves. Some looked like they could be my teachers or my parents’ coworkers.

After a deep breath, I squeezed past a couple of people, and placed myself in a corner in the back. My goal was to simply sit back and observe the crowd, as I wanted to learn how the service center conducted legal advice sessions and see how the migrant workers interacted with the consultants as well as with each other. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how easy it was for me to become invisible among the laborers. As soon as Xu called for people to quiet down and began her introductory speech, all gazes turned toward her.

“In today’s legal consulting session, we are going to learn about occupational injuries and deaths,” announced Xu, as she scribbled gong shang on a large whiteboard as tall as she, “and the process of getting adequate compensation for such occurrences.” The latter caused many to perk up, and a few around me shuffled in their seats excitedly. “Yeah!” shouted a deep voice, “Make them pay!” A few chimed in, “Dui, dui!” Some nervous giggles could be heard throughout the room. Xu’s eyes twinkled, and she went on in a surprisingly light-hearted manner, explaining the requirements needed for an injury to be counted as work-related. The workers listened intently. Some scribbled down notes; some typed down the vital words on their smartphones. One man in front of me nodded enthusiastically to each of Xu’s points, apparently having already known this information.

Next, Xu moved on to talk about the process of injury evaluations, explaining that there are ten levels—one being the most severe, and ten the most minor. Depending on each worker’s condition, the compensation may differ. Suddenly, a hand shot up in the air, and its owner yelled out with a strong southern accent: “Hey Director, what level do you think this would be?” Upon closer examination, it hit me that there were only four fingers—he was missing a pinky! Before I could catch my breath, a guy to my right stood up and waved around his left arm: “And this?!” There was a long, puckered ridge curling up across his forearm. While the wound was clearly months old, I could feel a stab of pain just from looking at it. Soon enough, everyone began showing their injured limbs or stumps where appendages used to be. I felt sick. I tried to take a deep breath, but the air was too muggy and dense. I missed the cool breeze of the AC. I sat frozen to my stool, feeling numb.

Right then, Xu’s voice boomed through the sea of questions: “Alright everyone, honestly I don’t know how you’d be rated; it’s not up to me. But here at Southern Sparrow, we do have a chart that lists the requirements for each level. Make sure to grab a copy on your way out!” That managed to quiet most people down. However, someone else yelled from the back of the room: “Do minorities or younger people get more money?” I turned to see a hand raised up in the air; three of its fingers were only half the length of the index finger. It belonged to a young man in his late teens or early twenties. He popped his head above the sea of black hair to reveal a boyish grin: “The tip of these fingers were cut off, and it’s difficult to scratch myself without nails!” The crowd laughed, and that seemed to stir up the group again. “Go rub against the wall somewhere!” sounded a voice. “Or just find a wife to scratch for you!” belted another. “Any volunteers in this room?” joked yet another migrant.

“What’s the rating for death?” wheezed an older man. The room instantly silenced as if we were sucked into a giant vacuum, and all heads turned to search for the source of that voice. “How much compensation,” he paused to draw in a shallow breath, “is enough for a life?” His feeble delivery was barely a whisper, but the message struck our hearts like a steel hammer. Through the roomful of people, I could make out a thin man who looked to be in his late thirties, dressed in a dark blue, short sleeved cotton t-shirt that draped around his small figure, only outlining a hunched back. Underneath a blue hat was a dark and wrinkled face. His expression was wary, and his shoulders heaved up and down as he struggled with shortness of breath. This was a body already spent from a lifetime of labor. I felt slightly suffocated just watching this shell of a body attempting to grasp the last remnants of life.

“This is Old Zhang,” explained a Southern Sparrow volunteer who had been standing by the door. “His wife passed away last month of pneumoconiosis. Her factory refuses to pay for any of the treatment fees.” The atmosphere was heavy; sighs could be heard across the room. Some shook their heads slowly. “Now he himself is in the second stage of the same illness.” Here, she paused to look over at him for confirmation, to which Zhang nodded solemnly before turning to look down at his feet. “In fact, that’s his son over there,” she continued, tilting her chin to point out the little boy I’d noticed earlier. Zhang is “worried about what’s going to happen to the child once his health worsens, but we are going to help him figure it out.”

My mind wandered back to the readings I’d done on pneumoconiosis. There is no cure; treatments will only slow down development. However, even such treatments are well beyond what migrant workers could afford, typically sending many families into extreme poverty and debt. Was this the case for this frail man before me? It was likely, but we never got a chance to learn his full story before Director Xu called for everyone to refocus. We needed to move on with the consulting lecture, so that people could get all the necessary information before retuning to work that very afternoon.

The next few hours went by quickly, as the director explained the steps of filing for compensation for occupational injuries, using clever delivery and effective examples. The audience continued to listen, occasionally interrupting with morbid jokes involving their own experiences. Several times they chuckled collectively at the ridiculousness of the inconsistencies presented by China’s underdeveloped labor laws. Every now and then, there would be outcries of “What the hell is this?”—more out of despair than earnestly trying to figure it out. However, behind all the laughter and jests, were grave injuries, illnesses, and deaths. In the end, I stepped out of that conference room feeling exhausted and shaken.

Putting these faces to the statistics I had been reading about all summer was an unsettling yet powerful experience. Those I had once tallied as figures have now become individuals, and in some cases, even friends. These people work 12-hour shifts to manufacture the products seen everyday in our markets, clothing stores, tech shops, etc. Yet often times in the face of glossy plastics or brightly colored fabrics, we, as consumers, give surprisingly little thought about the backstage politics along the supply chain. As China emerges as the world’s factory, what becomes the cost behind merchandise stamped with “Made in China?”