Graphic: softwater for Lausan

Factory diaries: My life as an undercover student worker

Building coalition with migrant workers at a Guangdong factory unmasked a whole generation's subjection to Chinese capitalism

Original: 【工廠日記:一名進廠學生的躊躇與行動】, published in Masses

Translators: Chin Kinnan, Ariel Padam

This article has been edited for clarity and precision. If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

Editor’s note

In 2010, the same year in which multiple workers leapt to their deaths at Foxconn, a Marxist high school student group began sending members into factories, hoping to mobilize and organize workers in order to advance a labor movement. Passionate and idealistic, these left-wing students entered the factories, filled with revolutionary fervor. Not only did they endure hard physical labor, but they also navigated confusion and frustration as they tried to organize fellow workers. In these diaries, the author candidly reflected on the helplessness the group had felt during that intense period.

One recurring question he had to confront was how student activists could awaken fellow workers’ sense of class consciousness, so that they could work towards self-determination. Due to the high turnover rate among workers, it was difficult to develop stable relationships. In reality, workers’ resistance against the sweatshops was often passive and nihilistic in nature: workers preferred finding a different employer, rather than pursuing legal action or going on strike. The author also frequently questioned his “petit bourgeois” shortcomings―looking more like a student than a worker, and having a quiet and subdued persona―that prevented him from gaining fellow workers’ trust. All in all, seemingly trivial yet concrete everyday matters became unavoidable obstacles in coalition building. 


My persona at the factory had been that of a high school dropout who had failed his college entrance exams. When I quit, I lied to the section chief that I was returning to my studies and needed to study for college. I didn’t mean to deliberately hide my identity, but I felt the lie necessary in order for me to continue organizing the workers there. The section chief gladly approved my resignation, and wholeheartedly advised the line and group chiefs to let me go. My departure was very smooth, and I got my wages without a hitch.

To be honest, I was grateful. When others in my line found out I was going back to my studies, they were very supportive. They knew that without an education―to be “uncultured”―it is difficult to get ahead in this dog-eat-dog world. I was ashamed, as it was gut-wrenching to lie to them. They had told me their stories, and treated me with honesty and respect. On more than a few occasions, I was tempted to tell them the truth, but I continued to do them wrong; I can only leave my apologies on these pages instead.

I remember the day I first walked into this factory. For someone who had lived in Northern China all his life, even though I’ve worked before, it was my first time being in the South. I had never seen such a vast operation: each work area stacked up against another. Sure enough, it turned out to be a place defined by capital. Seeing the deluge of workers during shift changes, it was difficult to imagine the lives of these migrant workers, so far away from their home.

In 25 endless days and nights, I repeatedly struggled with myself and within this godforsaken factory. I was assigned to the materials crew, which wasn’t an easy job: “easy” didn’t exist here. With some trepidation, I started my work. Eyeing my workstation, there was a deep sense of foreboding and pressure. I didn’t understand Southern dialects, and it dawned on me how it must feel to be alone―and lonely―in my work area. I wondered how much worse the alienation must be for the average Foxconn worker.

At times, my heart ached. I would sometimes go to the plaza with my coworkers to watch people dance or go to the movies, but sometimes I would just hole up in the dormitory, gazing at the underside of the top bunk, listening to the monotonous tick-tock of the clock, drifting slowly off to sleep. We all wished we could dream, to pass these long summer nights. But more often than not, in the sweltering heat of the South, we would jerk awake in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. 


Tuesday, 20th July 2010

Today I finally made it into the factory. It was quite an ordeal. The factory is called XX Industrial Products Limited. The site itself spans about one hectare, with 500 workers―as the security team leader pointed out during training―and four dormitory buildings: one male and one female dorm each for workers and two for staff, with the two workers’ dorms facing each other. Each room houses eight people with a few housing up to 12 people, and the buildings were built in the 1990s with dated amenities. The windows barely have any glass; the doors are so warped that they couldn’t be locked. The whole setup is as sparse as that of a junior high dorm. Each floor has one shower and bathroom―four toilets and six shower stalls in total. The shower stall is set up in as crude a way as imaginable: it does not have a faucet or hot water, so you’d have to take a bucket of water to the stall. All in all, the facilities are dilapidated, and corridors have areas with standing water. No wonder many workers prefer to rent and live elsewhere. 

From chatting with a few co-workers in my dorm, I found out that the factory now has 300 or so people, with a lot of turnover. Based on what I saw at orientation, many workers are high school graduates here for a summer job, or are temp workers. Those who are here for the long haul make up about 50% of the group. Among the few people in my dorm, the cohort from Guangxi doesn’t plan on staying long, and will leave when they make enough spending money (which would turn out to be three months). There are two high school graduates from Henan, who plan to bail after the summer. Another third-year university student from Henan is here for summer break to make some money. A guy from Dazhou, Sichuan has been working here for a year, and is a long-term employee. According to the two youngsters from Henan, this factory has been open for a little over a year, so those who’ve been here for that long can be considered long-term workers. In my few days of being here, several people have already come and gone, mostly because the dorms are in such poor conditions. Not only would the water be cut off every now and then at night, you would get rashes from bug bites. All in all, eight people have come and gone. The two kids are leaving tonight to live elsewhere. That way they can sleep better and not fall asleep during the day.

Wednesday, 21st July 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked for a total of 11 hours

Today was my first day of work, and also my first time eating breakfast here at the factory. My goodness. The breakfast consisted of a portion of chow mein, and a bowl of short-grain rice gruel; the rice seemed to have been boiled, which was pretty unappetizing. In truth, the two dishes would normally go well together, except that the chow mein was unsalted and had a weird taste. Overall, the cafeteria food here is pretty grim. The winter melon in the soup was not cleaned properly, and the vegetables didn’t have any oil to taste. Lunch and supper each had only two dishes, and each dish was half a scoop.

The factory uses electrical fans exclusively, so the circulation isn’t too bad. What’s lacking are co-ed toilets; we only have four shared stalls shared by all men and women. That’s really inconvenient. The so-called free drinking water provided in each section, which I originally thought was mineral water, is just tap water bottled up in mineral water bottles. Our entire assembly outfit has 150 people or so, spread across four lines. By rough estimates, 70 to 80 people are temp or summer workers, many of whom are not even 16 years old. The rest won’t be here for long either, with the majority working three to four months at most. Most of us on the line are pretty lazy, unless the foremen are lurking nearby and monitoring us. We spend a lot of time dicking around and being idle, so the efficiency is pretty low. Our line manager likes to fuck with us from time to time, but I don’t say much and keep my head down at work. Hopefully, that way I’d stay on his good side. 

Every day I repeat the same movement 1,791 times. I’d often lose my train of thought during work, but my hands would keep moving. I suppose this is the point of mechanical labor: you can work even when your brain is asleep. I perform this task 700 times in the morning, 700 times in the afternoon, and 391 times during my overtime at night. It’s tiring just sitting there all by yourself without anyone to talk to, so fatigue sets in easily.

At night, I chatted with a coworker who had come to the factory two months ago, and he didn’t even know how much his wages are. You can’t blame him entirely, as he hasn’t been paid yet. His salary in May has been held as a “deposit,” and his June salary wouldn’t be paid until the end of this month. He still doesn’t know how much he’s getting paid, or whether he had signed a contract. This was surprising to me, as the law stipulates that factories must let workers know when they start work. Should I warn him? 

Another noteworthy thing happened today. Three guys who started with me have decided to quit and find work at a different factory. According to them, this factory is in violation of the Labor Contract Law: taking into account 28 working days and two vacation days with daily overtime of three to four hours, the hourly wage at this factory is about US¢59. In addition, the living conditions are terrible, which made their lives miserable. You don’t get paid on time, the food is bad, and at night you’re ravaged by mosquitoes and other pests. The conditions here are no different from the Chinese factories of the 1990s.  

Thursday, 22nd July 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked for a total of 11 hours

On my second day of work, I have gotten relatively used to the disgusting cafeteria food. But as far as work is concerned, I have begun to feel tired: first with aches in my back, and then with my hands. I felt like just another cog in the machine, especially when things get busy. 

Today I didn’t get to interact much with anyone else, and haven’t really been sociable. I was hoping to expand my social network here as my body acclimates to the labor. I noticed that the workers here have very little free time, and their leisure activities are pretty monotonous. After getting off work at 9:30pm, some would head straight to bed, some would go out to watch a movie or play pool, while others would stay in the break room at the factory to watch television, play chess, or play pool. There aren’t many other alternatives. Those who engage in these activities are always the same few people, while the rest don’t participate. The break room in the factory is fairly small, with one TV, two pool tables, and a table tennis table. A small minority would go out to a net cafe, the arcade, or go roller skating.

The wages in this factory are very low. It used to be US$176 per month, and now it is about US$206 per month. This is for the assembly department; for hand spraying, the wages would be higher, roughly US$250–265. The low wages, coupled with poor dorm conditions, made for very high turnover rates. Young people aren’t willing to stay for long, and they usually wouldn’t stay for more than half a year. Those who are here for longer tend to be older workers. Faced with these unfavorable conditions, the veteran workers tend to grumble a bit, or advise us to leave as soon as we can. The younger workers, in turn, would say, “It is what it is, I won’t be around for too long. I’ll stick around for a few days then leave, so I don’t really care.” Basically, nobody would think to demand higher wages or less overtime from the factory. Instead, workers tend to endure silently or leave in protest. There was one coworker who came in the night before and worked for one afternoon before promptly leaving.

Friday, 23rd July 2010

Shift ended at 10:30pm, worked for a total of 12 hours

It’s now the third day of work. Compared to the last two, the work is now more familiar and I’m becoming more dexterous. But I’m also feeling more tired. The workload today was relatively heavy, with overtime ending at 10:30pm. Depressing.

Let’s talk about some intel I have gathered. I got close to an auntie from Hubei. She and her 16 year-old son work at the factory, while her husband works in Changsha. Her younger daughter stays at home in Hubei. Hers is a typical working-class family. According to her, this factory is actually relatively tolerable: at least the management is fairly lax. Even though the wages are low, it’s relatively easy to quit. She told me that there are few actual employees here―about a third―while the majority are temps. She herself is a temp, because it’s easier to quit that way once she has earned enough. It would be much harder to quit if you were an employee. But temp wages are very low, ranging from US¢56 to 59 to 63 an hour. The workers would only complain a bit, but wouldn’t demand more.

Apparently, there had once been a supervisor who felt the wages were too low and led a strike. In the end, the boss gave them their wages, but hired thugs outside the factory to beat up the leaders of the strike. One of them became disabled because of that. Questioned by the police, those in the factory said that the strikers got mugged outside, and since then nobody has led any sort of organized actions. The auntie also added that the head honcho of the factory is a bank manager, a local man with good connections with the Labor Bureau. The boss below him is a triad type, so the two of them can brazenly open a factory here and make money. It is all very corrupt. On the backs of the temp workers, the boss can make US¢30 an hour on each of them. That’s insane profit right there. 

In workers’ eyes, the Labor Bureau and entrepreneurs are co-conspirators. To seek legal solutions is in vain, tortuous, and troublesome.

At the workstation, I am beginning to learn more about the personalities of and dynamics between some people, but there aren’t many chances to get to know them better. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the shared experience of living in the same dorm, so we can only interact during work hours, which makes things much more difficult. To know them better would take a few more days.

Doing mindless tasks the entire day sometimes leads me to believe that I am indeed an average worker. In the past, because I wore glasses and was surrounded by other college or high school students working summer jobs, I was often mistaken as a summer worker. Perhaps a gradual transformation would make it easier to build relationships. 

Right now, the one thing I feel is a deep sense of loneliness. I need to build my social circle fast. I’ve been thinking about the workers who leapt from Foxconn’s buildings recently; maybe many of them had felt the same way.

Saturday, 24th July 2010

Shift ended at 10:30pm, worked for a total of 12 hours

Today I saw a notice regarding dorm occupancy in June, which confirmed that very few people indeed live in the dorms, as there were only 115 names on the notice.

More and more coworkers are also saying it’s more difficult to quit now, because resignation almost never gets approved. Before, those who wish to leave would choose to “leave on their own” (while this is easier than resigning with the employer’s approval, the worker must forfeit a month’s salary). I am beginning to worry that my own path to resignation may not be so smooth after all.

Today, security guards discovered that a fan was left running at a dorm before the beginning of the shift, and everyone was fined US$1. Supposedly, it’s the third time this has happened. The coworkers on my line were all pretty calm about the situation, and didn’t begrudge the factory for having unreasonable rules or the fine for being too onerous. Rather, they resented the two new workers for their forgetfulness. They berated, “Let’s see who has more money! I’ve already been paid, while they just started and haven’t gotten their paycheck yet. Let’s see who can pay up.” Honestly speaking, while this is true, I wish we didn’t blame each other or fight amongst ourselves. I’d rather we collaboratively look for ways to resist factory policies. Perhaps what I observed is normal, as workers are used to tolerating injustices without questioning the management.

Perhaps because we were rushing our orders, we’ve been working overtime for two consecutive nights. 12-hour workdays are way too long. Every coworker is looking forward to getting off work the second they start their shifts. When they get prodded to finish their work, they carry on with much reluctance.

There aren’t that many women on our line, but there is one who is here for the summer. A couple of the guys kept coming on to her, harassing her with their crude remarks and jokes. They made her life miserable, but she couldn’t do much other than ignoring them and silently continuing with her work. Women in the factory are very marginalized. 

I feel like I should be a bit more extroverted as a factory worker. There is still a lot of workers’ knowledge I have yet to delve into. The biggest issue right now is that my social circle is too small, so I must figure out how to address this issue. 

Sunday, 25th July 2010

Shifted ended at 8:30pm, worked a total of 10 hours

Student reunion today for those working undercover. What a rare occasion!

Monday, 26th July 2010

Shift ended at 10:30pm, worked a total of 12 hours

Today I realized that I’m pretty timid in front of strangers. I lacked confidence to open up. I have lost several good opportunities to chat with people. It’s been six days and I’m still not seeing progress, but I only have myself to blame. I’m here to know everyone better, and I need more breakthroughs. Come on!

Bao on the factory floor is from Xinyang, Henan Province. He started working here on Feb 22. He’s active, jokes a lot, and knows a lot of people. I should try to talk to him.

Hua, a roommate and fellow townsman of mine, has been doing hand-spraying for almost a year. He didn’t go home last Spring Festival but plans to go home this year. He’s 28 years old but still doesn’t have a girlfriend. He looks rather old and can be pretty taciturn. According to him, in the hand-spraying workshop, some workers wear masks and some don’t. He’s used to the conditions and isn’t bothered though. Workers in hand-spraying are slightly better compensated at US$279 per month. On my end, we get around US$200.

By the way, it has become clearer and clearer to me that this is indeed a sweatshop. It’s said that some time ago the factory gave all the child workers a day off to dodge inspection from the Labor Bureau. Some temp workers here have barely even graduated from middle school.

Tuesday, 27th July 2010

Shift ended at 5:15pm, worked a total of eight hours

Today is a shipment day, so we didn’t need to work overtime at night. There’s finally some rare downtime. But I have no idea what to do with this unexpected time off. In fact, many fellow workers feel the same way. Some of them would sleep the night away in the dorms, some would go window shopping, while others would play video games. Everyone feels empty inside.

Today I got to know Liang from Guangxi Province. He started working here in February and plans to quit after the upcoming payday. For Liang, this is unquestionably a sweatshop. Workers don’t get their wages and can do nothing but “quit voluntarily.” Liang is ready to let go of his wages for July. This is a common approach. The majority, if not all, of the employees in this factory don’t get approval for their resignation requests. Powerless in the face of the factory, workers mostly wouldn’t try, or even think about, resisting. They have no choice except to quit alone and give up a whole month’s worth of salary with “magnanimity.” What else could these lone migrant workers do, with no one supporting them? 

I think resignation might be a good topic of conversation with the other workers. That might ultimately lead to some collective actions and rights-based legal pursuits. Why is that while entrepreneurs complained of the new Labor Law, no workers rejoice about it? In workers’ eyes, the Labor Bureau and entrepreneurs are co-conspirators. To seek legal solutions is in vain, tortuous, and troublesome. But come on! We’ll find a way!

Wednesday, 28th July 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked a total of 11 hours

Last night around midnight, two roommates and I got to chatting about wages. Bao showed me his pay stubs for the past four months. His hourly rate was extremely low at US¢40 an hour. According to the pay formula still in effect in June, he should have been paid US¢50 an hour, and twice that rate for any overtime. That is to say, the so-called prorated wage offered by the factory was below the minimum wage based on working hours. This is nothing less than an improper wage deduction. In this case, we have grounds to terminate labor relations and demand financial compensation.

My fellow workers aren’t aware of this yet, and a few of us are going to quit next month. It’s a matter of urgency that I persuade them to go argue with the management to demand  our legal wages and rights. Tomorrow is our day off. I will try to persuade them to go seek legal counsel with me. Come on! At least get two other people on board. We can’t give up our struggle.

Thursday, 29th July 2010

Department day-off

On this day-off, I decided to convince several fellow workers who are about to quit to go seek legal rights. It was difficult to find an opportune time to persuade them. I failed after several attempts. In the evening, when chatting with Bao, I realized that I had been wrong about who had plans to quit. It’s Ming from Xinjiang and Fa from Chongqing who had decided to quit, not the two Henanese workers whom I talked to today. Ming, who started in March, was repulsed by all the unspeakable things he has seen here. He believed that government officials conspired with factory management. But he refused to just give up, and is determined to demand his rightful wages. When I suggested legal counsel, Ming said, “There are too many such services, but none is truly helpful.” Maybe there is still too little trust between us for any real progress to happen. But I believe that by showing him my care and conversing with him more, I can convince him to fight for his rights.

Bao told me that he usually isn’t really serious when he says he’d quit. It’s merely to vent his frustration. Afterwards he’d think: “What can I do outside a factory?” He doesn’t have direction, so he never made up his mind to quit. When I mentioned to him that some workers became business owners after leaving the factory, he said he’d love to do business too if he had the capital. These young workers are still thinking about their future despite their confusion and hesitation. They are dreaming their own dreams, which have been worn as thin as air.

The working class is left to their own devices, and yet their power is so completely dwarfed by that of their enemies. To fight in solidarity in class struggle is much easier said than done.

In the afternoon, I had a deep conversation with a Henanese worker next door whose name I didn’t know (I later learnt it’s Jun). He was born in 1986 and is 24 years old. He’s a divorcee. He told me he regretted not having learnt anything useful in school and for idling his youth away. As we chatted, I could see tears in his eyes. He was often sulky. I could tell he was very stressed, perhaps out of anxiety about the future. Romantic frustration and an unpromising career had left him lonely and disoriented. Who could show him the way forward? I noticed that one finger was missing on his right hand. I refrained from asking about it for fear of triggering any distressing memories. I will leave that topic for the future. Just like Bao, Jun wanted to quit but couldn’t make up his mind because he couldn’t think of another way to make a living. He believed his age and missing finger would stand in the way if he tried to get into a better factory. And so he continued the grind in this sweatshop, floundering.

What similar struggles from two people with such differences in background, age, and personality. What is the cause of their shared misery? Their experience may be typical of migrant workers in their 20s and 30s. When can they settle down to form a family and have a promising career? Confused and lost, my coworkers often distract themselves from the grind by asking for a leave, skipping work, or quitting. This is the imprint of the era on a whole generation of migrant workers. I believe we can continue this conversation about our future and our personal goals while delving into more emotional topics, like family life.

These have proven to be good topics of conversation indeed. I’ll keep this up!

Friday, 30th July 2010

Shift ended at 8:30pm, worked a total of 10 hours

Today we got our wages for June. Everyone complained about how low they are. The highest wage in the assembly department is only US$232 for a month of work without any absences. That averages to merely US¢60 per hour for regular time as well as over-time. In June, the citywide minimum wage in Dongguan was raised to US$142 per month, or US¢80 an hour. It’s very clear that the factory has seriously violated the Labor Law. Such is the blatant extraction of surplus value. Yet, everyone has gotten used to returning to business as usual after a round of rants. Perhaps for many of us, this feels like fate―an unchangeable fate. Perhaps they’re too resigned to the bleak reality, and too unfamiliar with the laws. In this state, no collective struggle could possibly grow out of their collective grievances. This is where the capitalists see an opening to keep exploiting and extracting. We have to open our eyes!

What’s even more ridiculous is that Ming, who’s about to quit, got a meager paycheck of US$148, some US$93 less compared to other workers. What heinous underpayment and rampant exploitation! I kept encouraging Ming to demand more compensation through legal means. Hopefully he’ll heed my suggestion. This moment of discontent might be the best chance to raise everyone’s awareness of the Labor Law and to mobilize them to fight for their rights. I’ll explain the fine print to them in a clear way, and inspire them with hope and courage. I shall not recoil! 

Saturday, 31st July 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked a total of 11 hours

There are too many problems with this factory. Is it a factory at all? Things are utterly inhumane! How many other factories operate like this out here in Dongguan? 

Things haven’t been going as expected. Several fellow workers have decided to quit before I even had a chance to talk to them. Will they take legal action to protect their rights? Can we workers enact collective self-determination? I am beginning to lose my optimism. Faced with such formidable enemies and without any precedents of success, workers tend to give in. Are our enemies to blame for being too powerful? Why do workers have no faith in the Labor Law? In fact, why do people shake their heads whenever it comes to the law? What has become of the government’s credibility? What about social justice? The working class is left to their own devices, and yet their power is so completely dwarfed by that of their enemies. To fight in solidarity in class struggle is much easier said than done. When can we form a class consciousness? When will that turn into collective action? The answer is nowhere to be found. I’m at a loss.

Sunday, 1st August 2010

Shift ended at 5:15pm, worked a total of eight hours

Overtime is always compulsory here. To hell with the so-called “voluntary” overtime. Everybody is angry but has no way to vent. They can only endure silently or quit out of indignation as a sign of protest at the expense of losing wages.

Little Xi is a coworker on our line. Before working here in June, he had worked in Shenzhen, Xixiang, and Lunghua for a while. He is pretty disappointed with life here. He started to slack off and miss work after the first month. He has already been working for a month, and plans on staying here a bit longer. He might well quit at the end of his third month. He is from Yichang, Hubei Province. He is around my age, and leads a meandering life. I feel like we can have deeper conversations.

By the way, the Henanese guy next door, Jun, has decided to quit without formal approval, losing his wages for July. Tomorrow he will go looking for a new place to work. So has Fa in the red hat. So has Yongliang Shu, who is said to have been married and has a two-year-old. He sure doesn’t look like a dad.

Monday, 2nd August 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked a total of 11 hours

Little Xi has a younger brother who’s about to become a college sophomore next semester. It turns out that he’s already 23 this year, so two years my senior. He’s been working away from home for two years since graduating from a vocational school in his hometown. 

After a coworker formally resigned and five others quit without approval, there are suddenly fewer people―much fewer old-timers―on our line. It’s becoming much harder to make any progress.

Tuesday, 3rd August 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked a total of 11 hours

Every day flies by the exact same way, leaving no trace as time passes. I am starting to lose the initial passion I had for connecting with other workers. Almost everyone here wants to leave, especially those who can formally resign in search of a better factory. However, most continue to toil in sullen silence. Should I leave or stay? It seems like I can no longer uncover more information. But couldn’t I have put in more effort and done more? Let me hang on for a few more days. 

Wednesday, 4th August 2010

Shift ended at 9:30pm, worked a total of 11 hours

Bao moved out all of a sudden a bit past 6am this morning. He’s moving to the Tsu Fu Chi food factory, where the wages might be higher and working conditions better.

In the afternoon, Ming moved out, too. In March this year, he took the money that was meant for his high school junior year tuition, ran away from home with two classmates, headed down south from Xinjiang, and landed in this factory. While the two classmates later returned home, he remained in the factory until his resignation today. He always spends his entire paychecks and has hardly saved a dime. The US$170 salary from June was all he had in his pocket when he left. He had planned to return home but felt guilty about facing his parents. He said he wanted to head for Guizhou, before going back to his hometown in Sichuan. In preparation, he’d save some money between now and the end of the year. His dad urged him to go back and learn new vocational skills before coming out to work again; now, he’s only idling his youth away. Adrift, Ming still has no idea where to go, or what to do in the future. He’s going to hang out with Liang for now.

Little Xi told me today that he’s been out here making a living for years and years. He dropped out of school in 2001 when he was 14. He had worked at a Holiland food factory in Beijing for a while, earning a good US$200 a month. In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, he returned home and learnt to drive an excavator in a vocational school. Afterwards, he found a local job and earned several hundreds a month. Later he went to Yunnan and worked in the construction sector, building tunnels and working on other similar projects. At that time, he earned around US$400 a month, but had a heavy workload and worked in harsh conditions. Dissatisfied with the income, he resigned after eight months and went to Guangdong with US$928 in his pocket. He couldn’t find a stable job for a long while. After working in Shenzhen, he landed a job at this current factory through an acquaintance. He has been laboring for quite some time now, but has no idea where the future will take him, unfulfilled after years of toiling and drifting. 

These young migrant workers are constantly building connections with people who share similar interests. They then make use of these friendships to expand their connections and land jobs at other factories. This might just be the way migrant workers support themselves and each other.


How did I end up at the factory? Every time I call my dad, he’d say to me, “Study well in school, and don’t worry about money. Your mother and I will figure it out.” With wages this low, how are they supposed to “figure it out”?

Every time I return home, I’d see more and more grey hair atop my parents’ heads. My father is no longer as strong and healthy as he once was. According to my mom, in order to make more money, he is now taking on jobs that pay by output rather than by the hour. Often, one day’s work actually amounts to two days of labor. I have tried countless times to dissuade him from taking on so much work. Every time he’d agree with me, but then he’d go back to doing the same thing. I understand where he’s coming from. I wonder what I can do for him in return.

In order to save transportation costs, every Lunar New Year my parents choose not to return home. As a result, my paternal grandma, along with my maternal grandparents, have to spend the holiday by themselves. Of course I know that my parents are homesick. But they prefer to work overtime, if it means helping their son get into college, and letting him live his college life with dignity. They feel like the hard work is well worth it.

At the same time, I’d push back against anyone who’d claim that my parents enjoy working overtime. Even though my parents don’t have much money, they don’t care too much about it; they wouldn’t chase profit like some capitalist. My parents are no different to millions upon millions of farm workers. They are children who have children and their own parents to take care of. They all aspire for their children to escape the confines of rural life. So why would they enjoy overtime? 

I haven’t thoughtfully considered many things before entering the factory―for example, why I chose to go in the first place. Once I had firsthand experience working in a factory, I realized that what led me there had been the lived experience in and of itself. In school, these are exactly the things we often forget. Our parents are blue-collar workers who have had many years of experience working in the cities when we were still kids. We resented them for the long absences from home and may even have grown apart from them, but we’ve also bragged about them to our classmates; the urban world held such allure.

We also knew that it was hard work for our parents. While we saw them when they came home for the New Year’s, bearing gifts and money, we’d swiftly spend that money at school, oblivious to the way they toiled on the assembly line. Even though I had never considered this as deeply before, I wonder if our solidarity with the working class also stem from such personal memories and family histories. And because of this connection, we joined student advocacy groups when we got onto campus, looking into labor conditions for workers and eventually ending up inside the factories ourselves. Once we stepped foot in the factories and into the lives of workers, we were able to tie ourselves back to our own roots. 

In the second semester of my sophomore year, I joined the Marxist study group at my school. I was drawn to the students in that group, who were down-to-earth and passionate about the plight of the people. As a collective, we discussed existing social problems in our country and deliberated potential solutions. As I admired my peers’ thinking and values, I felt small in comparison. Often during our discussions, I didn’t know how to contribute because I was astonished by their level of insight. Once, a labor NGO came to speak at one of our group meetings, describing the labor conditions in the factories and the lives of workers. That shocked me, as I had no idea how hard it really is. They work some of the most punishing jobs around, and yet do not make a living wage. Afterwards, I decided to join them in the factory during summer break.

In a blink of an eye, it’s been a while since I’ve left the factory, and I’ve since returned to my normal routine: going to class, going out, eating, studying on my own―as if all that had happened during the summer never really happened. But life in the factory follows me like a shadow. Even in my dreams at night, I made sure that I clocked in, lest I get in late and get yelled at by the line manager and don’t get my pay.

Once we left the factory, we wasted no time to get back to our “original” lives, sitting in our brightly-lit apartments, our soft fluffy beds. Even if our minds are still dwelling on the factory, our bodies have left it altogether. We have escaped the tedium and pressure of that dreadful place. But what about our worker brothers and sisters? They are still sleeping in the same dorms, standing in the same spots at their workstations. For them, there is no real escape.

I also realized that university campuses and factories are kind of alike. The development zones are like college towns, and the factory is like the university. Workers and students are not dissimilar. The workstations in the factory are like classrooms, and college administrators are like department chiefs at the factory. Folks go to the factory and university so they can put food on the table. The factory produces products of the same quality, while the university produces the same type of graduates. Both students and workers don’t know what the futures hold. Once I left the factory, I felt adrift.

In school, we learn economics, management, political science, and sociology from books and lectures. Whether or not we agree, we’re required to work with theories. Although the experience in the factory helps us to reflect on and critique such theories, what’s more important is that these experiences allow us to make connections between things we’ve learned, whether we agree or disagree. This is drastically different to deliberating on the same issues within the walls of the ivory tower. While we may be motivated to intervene in discourse based on our lived experiences and perspectives, this intervention is also often neglected, because it’s deemed disruptive to dominant knowledge institutions that serve capitalism and those in power. In my view, this is crucial to the reconstruction of a Marxian analytic that can proactively envision a collective future.