If you’re in trouble or hurt or in need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones,” wrote John Steinbeck, the American writer known for his works set during the Great Depression.
That depiction would seem apt for Zhang Quanshou.
Dubbed in China as the ‘migrant worker commander,’ Zhang is the go-to person for migrant workers from Henan Province, as well as Anhui, Shaanxi, Hebei and other less developed regions.
The migrants call him ‘boss’, or sometimes ‘brother,’ and submit obediently to his military-like management.
Zhang had a deprived childhood. As a young boy he was infected with meningitis, which made him rather sickly until he was seven years old. He then dropped out of school at 13, and started taking up a series of odd jobs to help support his family. He sold ice-cream, popcorn, worked at restaurants, construction sites and on the railways. He had his share of bad luck, contracting arthritis and even losing his noodle shop in a fire.
But Zhang likens his hardships to the ordeals undergone by the Buddhist monk in Journey to the West (one of the Four Great Classics of Chinese Literature). He reminded himself, “Even Xuanzang and his disciples had to go through 81 hurdles (to obtain the scriptures), who am I to complain about such minor issues?”
In 1997, Zhang moved to Shenzhen with Rmb170 ($24.82) in his pocket. Initially he led a tough life, sleeping under flyovers and going days without a proper meal. Eventually he opened a small noodle shop with his savings and some borrowed money. He started up a small toy-making company two years later.
In 1999, many factories in the Pearl River Delta region were refusing to recruit workers from Henan Province following media publicity about Henan workers who had been involved in robberies and other crime. The Henanese had developed a reputation for being untrustworthy. Some job ads stated that people from the province need not bother applying.
Zhang felt sorry for his fellow Henan natives and decided he would help by employing them, even if it meant further strain on his business. But the workload was quite cyclical. When there were orders, his workers worked around the clock but during slow periods, they practically had nothing to do.
Over time, Zhang discovered other factories had similar problems in matching the supply of labour to the periods in which it was needed. He came to realise that there was a business opportunity in ‘hiring out’ his workforce, reports New Weekly.
With that in mind, Zhang founded Quanshun (literally ‘all smooth’) Human Resources Development in 2004.
The company became an employment agency for migrant workers, and allocated them to factories that needed them. Zhang negotiates wages, living conditions and other terms on his workers’ behalf.
The factories reportedly pay him anything from Rmb50 to Rmb200 per month in management fees for each contract worker.
Workers are managed in a para-military and sometimes paternalistic style.
They are each guaranteed monthly wages starting from Rmb1,300, but must designate a bank account back home with a relative to receive Rmb900 out of the monthly wage, so as to ensure the money isn’t wasted.
But when a worker isn’t contracted to work at a factory, he still gets an allowance of Rmb40 per day, plus board and lodging. When demand is slow, Zhang trucks in food to feed his workforce.
Zhang says that he gives out his mobile phone number to all of his workers so that they can contact him in case of trouble. And he likes calling his company a ‘base’.
So new recruits typically go through a three-day crash course that helps them adjust to their new lifestyle: how to stand straight, walk purposefully and sing the company song. They also listen to a Zhang lecture (on CD) for rules including a ban on smoking, drinking and romantic relationships.
“These crash courses give the young migrant workers a sense of belonging. In this simple but pragmatic organisation, they have found a ‘Commander’ who is willing to be responsible for them. They are no longer disorganised ‘soldiers’ from the countryside looking for work,” the Southern Metropolitan Daily gushed.
Zhang continues to live up to his name for accepting all-comers. At times, it all seems a little too biblical in style. Newspapers report one speech to people in Henan, “Whoever comes to me for a job, I, Zhang Quanshou, will take all of them.”
Still, his company seems to be prospering. Zhang started out with a few dozen workers but now has 20,000 on its books. His clientele include foreign companies, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwanese-invested enterprises in various cities including Dongguan, Fuzhou and Xiamen.
The ‘Quanshun model’ does have its critics. While the Chinese media tend to be complimentary about Zhang, the internet is not short of bloggers far less impressed by him. They mock his practices and accuse him of exploiting naive migrant workers for his own benefit.
But Zhang seems undeterred. “Actually I have already made enough money for the rest of my life,” he told the Shenzhen Daily recently. “Now I feel that I am more like a representative for migrant workers. What I do now is help them overcome hard times and let their voices be heard by the authorities.”
He backs up his claim of assistance with his record as a deputy from Henan in the National People’s Congress, where he has submitted two proposals aimed at making migrant workers’ lives easier.
The first was to help them get redeployed and help them find new work opportunities, and the second was about getting more government support in improving rural infrastructure.
“As a worker, as a son of a farmer, coming from a farming village, I am very proud to be a representative at the Congress. This will allow me to hold a protective umbrella for the migrant workers that better protects their rights,” Zhang said. He also hopes to set up the first training centre or vocational school for migrant workers in Shenzhen.
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