Singapore-based student Sophia Cheng interned at WiC this summer. Perhaps more unusually, the 16 year-old also spent some of her school holiday working in a Shenzhen factory. Here she describes what it’s like to work in an electronics factory – a topical account given news of another suicide at a Foxconn affiliate this week.
I was a machine. For five days, I became one of the millions of factory workers in China. I sat on my stool for twelve hours a day, pressing the same buttons over and over again. F3, F10, F11, Go. F3, F10, F11, Go.
I was an inspector – I checked whether the computer monitors were good to go. F3, F10 and F11 verified that the LCD screens were in good condition.
I helped make 400 computer monitors an hour. Xie, my fellow inspector, has been working in that position for 10 years – that’s 13 million monitors. She told me that she has a son in Guangxi and that the journey home takes fourteen hours. Since Xie and her husband both work in Zhongshan for a living, their son lives with his grandparents back in Guangxi. He sees them once a year during Chinese New Year.
You were allowed to go to the bathroom whenever you wanted, as long as you were able to find the line leader to sub in for you during your toilet breaks. Line leaders are described as multi-purpose gods – they knew how to do the jobs for every position on that particular line. They were there not only to supervise but to sub-in whenever necessary so that the line wouldn’t stop because someone wanted a break.
Workers generally want a break once or at most twice every shift – you don’t want to be labelled as lazy by your leaders. Xie was the leader of my line. That day, she subbed in for me at least five times. She was forgiving – she remembered how it was on her first day.
Factory life gave monotonous a whole new meaning. It’s common knowledge that it is painful, grim and dull. Thanks to Foxconn, the word suicidal has been added to the list. Before my adventure, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t warn me about how tough this job would be. I imagined myself sweating and my back aching like crazy and praying that the day would be over because I would be so tired. But I, along with all the people who had warned me, had a wrong perception of the type of pain a factory worker endures. Backache, handache or whatever types of ache are only physical hardships. Those are the least of your worries.
Factory life is painful mentally. It sucks up your soul and turns you into a human machine.
At first I insisted in staying in the workers’ dormitory. The management wouldn’t allow me – they said it wouldn’t be safe because the girls would get “rowdy” and that they came from more “complicated” backgrounds. They said that I’d probably get bullied. So I settled with just a visit to see their living conditions. I thought climbing up five flights of stairs was the tough part until I stepped inside their room: 8-12 girls in one room; their only personal spaces were their bunk beds. They share one bathroom and one water hose for washing. The room had a poignant scent – a mixture of cheap perfume, urine, sweat and oily food.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the factory was that even though it was allowed, no one spoke. The second thing I noticed as I wandered around was that everyone was lifeless, expressionless and emotionless. Then I realised: turning yourself into a machine was the only way to make your day easier. You have to shut down all your feelings, emotions and live within yourself. It works; after all, it doesn’t require much of anything to press the same buttons over and over again. Gradually, not only can you do your job in your sleep, you will also become numb. Once you’ve reached that stage, nothing can beat you down. You will be able to survive five more hours of F3, F10, F11, Go.
Most importantly, you will be able to live with the idea that your job is endless, and that there’s no goal. A construction worker might have to work under the hot sun, but in the end he sees the building he has constructed. He could stare at it in awe and wonder how he managed to build something hundreds of times taller and heavier than himself. He gets that bit of satisfaction. Every job has a goal, and we rely on those goals to keep us sane, to drive us.
I learnt that, to get through a day, it was easier to turn myself into a machine. I cannot have emotions, I cannot think. My brain had to temporarily shut down.
Lingling was my first ‘factory friend’. She came from a small village in Hubei province. We stuck together during the orientation and shared answers during our test on the rules and regulations of the factory. She knew I was different. She was curious and, I could tell, envious of my life. She grew up on a farm; I grew up in the city. She never finished her second year of high school; I am finishing my last. She gave up her education for her sister’s and her brother’s education; I regularly whine about going to school. It was her fourth year away from home; it was my second day.
Despite all the differences, we got along. We laughed at the instructors, and secretly and slowly – very slowly – disclosed information about ourselves. I asked her whether she misses home. At first she just shrugged. After a few seconds, she said: “I miss my family, I miss the village. I’m ready to go home, but I can’t”. I asked her why she was the one who had to come out to work, not her eldest brother. She told me: “Everyone talks about social equality. But in small villages and rural areas it’s not like that”.
I spent the first day by myself. I wandered and ate alone. Wherever I went, people would stare. I knew what was going on in their heads – who is that? Where is she from? Although I am Chinese, I was different. I tried my best to blend in – I arrived in ill-fitted track pants and a plain white t-shirt. I even crumpled the shirt and made it look dirtier (Later on I learnt that it was unnecessary. Most of them, especially the younger workers, dress fashionably. Many even wear high-heels to work).
But something was still off. I didn’t know what it was until later. It was my manner. The confidence you just naturally have when you grow up with the privilege of living in an affluent society.
I thought I would get to know Lingling well – she would be my buddy for the next few days, and I wouldn’t have to eat alone any more. I shouldn’t have had my hopes so high. I forgot that we’d most likely end up in different departments. Just when we were chit-chatting, I was called upon and sent to a department where I had to start work immediately. I never got a chance to say bye, and when I looked back at her, we both knew it was the last time we’d see each other. I began to understand why people here don’t bother making friends.
I ate every meal by myself – like most of the other workers. For a normal eight-hour workday (in fact, usually they’re eleven-hour shifts, when you include overtime), your only break is your one-hour lunchtime.
Workers seldom stay in the canteen. They complain about the odour so strong it leaves a scar on your senses. They also complain about food that’s as monotonous as their job. It was beans or some-vegetable-that-tastes-like-beans-but-looks-different with rice everyday, with some scraps of meat.
I hated eating at the canteen; it was always unusually quiet for an area meant to hold thousands of people. The only workers who ate there were the ones that were too lazy to go out and get food or workers who couldn’t afford to. I’d sit in silence, gulping down the food as fast as possible so that the taste wouldn’t linger too long. It’s not like I was there to enjoy my meal, I only wanted to fill up my empty stomach.
You could immediately tell who is new and who had been here for a long time. New workers always come in with energy, and they still have expressions. They look more innocent, more lost and they can still be bothered to talk. Old workers have lost all that.
On my fourth day, they transferred me to a different department. This time, I wasn’t an inspector; I was a packager. My job was to put small computer parts into a long tube and I sat between two men. On my right was a man in his mid-twenties who was from a small village in Chongqing – a province 60 hours travel away from where we worked. He asked for my name, and talked a lot. He looked bored but could barely sit still. I knew immediately he was new. I asked him how long he’d been working here, and he told me it was only his fifth day. Meanwhile, a young guy sitting on my left was dozing off. He barely responded to anything; he didn’t look bored, just expressionless. He told me he had been there for three months and he was from Hainan.
It’s well known that these workers change jobs a lot. Normally you wouldn’t stay in the same factory for more than six months, but my factory had a few rare workers who had been there for over 10 years. I asked Chongqing how he liked his job. He said to me: “Extremely boring and dull.” Then I turned to Hainan and asked the same question. He said: “It’s ok, still surviving.”
Work wasn’t as painful that day with Chongqing and Hainan.
While walking back to my dormitory, it occurred to me that I didn’t know their names. After a few days at the factory, I realised it was pointless to bother.
During my time at the factory, I received training and did three twelve hour shifts and earned $0.80 an hour. I walked out of the factory certain that I will never doze off during a class. My teachers will also be glad to know that I’ve never been happier to get back to school.
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