China's migrant women

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Breakneck industrial expansion has transformed women's lives in China over the last generation. They live very different lives to their mothers and grandmothers but face enormous hardship in China's huge factories

If you are reading this article online the chances are that some part of the technology you are using will have been produced at one of the Foxconn factories in China.

This company made the international news last year due to a number of suicides among its workers. One of the largest Foxconn factories is in the city of Shenzhen in South East China. Between 300,000 and 450,000 workers are employed in this massive industrial park - a walled campus within Shenzhen dubbed "Foxconn city".

Almost 80 percent of the population of Shenzhen are migrant workers and nearly 70 percent of these are women. The neighbouring city of Dongguan has a population of over 7 million, more than two thirds of whom are also migrant workers. A third of all the shoes that are manufactured globally each year are manufactured in this city.

Few of the women working in these factories have proper contracts, most are paid below the minimum wage and there is excessive and compulsory overtime. Most of the women live in overcrowded sparse dormitories as migrant workers are not entitled to a city apartment and due to low wages few can afford to rent private accommodation outside the factory.

Long hours, old and dangerous machinery and relentless pressure to fulfill production quotas mean that accidents at work are common. Health and safety has been thrown out of the window, along with maternity rights.

Forcing workers to live in factory dormitories means that the bosses control almost every aspect of their lives. They can increase hours, change targets, issue fines for being late, sick or even in one case having long finger nails, and hold back wages. As the Chinese boss of one toy factory said recently, "We can stop compulsory overtime immediately, if US companies increase deadlines for orders from 30 to 90 days." It is such "just in time" production methods which result in workers literally working until they drop.

Over 140 million rural migrants now work in China's cities, where average incomes are more than three times greater than those of the countryside. Overall a third of all migrants are women, who leave home at an earlier age, stay away longer and travel further than their male counterparts.

Migrants have fuelled China's spectacular growth but have not reaped the benefits.
The land registration policy known as the Hukou has been in place since 1958. It was established to control rural migration to the cities and everyone has either rural or urban registration. Although since 1984 there has been a loosening of the policy, so that peasants could work in the cities, they remain classed as migrant workers and so have no rights to a bus pass, healthcare or free education for their children in the cities they work in.

The first generation of migrant workers had hopes of saving money and returning home. For many this ended in financial ruin. The second generation of migrants tend to go straight from school to factory without ever tending to the family farm.
Without the rights of a city Hukou, second generation migrants are neither peasants nor workers with rights. They lack knowledge of how to farm the land, but are not educated enough to leave the factory.

If they become parents, they face a terrible choice. Around 58 million children are left behind in the countryside by their parents to be raised by relatives. These children are lucky to see their parents once a year. Another 19 million children remain in the cities - where they are, in effect, second class citizens. The only way these remaining children can go to school is if their parents pay for them. During last summer, 24 migrant schools were closed in Beijing by the authorities for health and safety reasons, leaving 14,000 children with no school to attend.

The effect of migration and the one child policy has resulted in many village schools closing down and children have to travel further to get an education in the countryside. But nationally more than 80 percent of school buses do not meet national standards.

This had tragic consequences in November when a school minibus crashed in the north western province of Gansu, resulting in 19 children and two adults being killed. It was a nine-seater minibus illegally carrying 64 very young children.

For this new generation of migrant workers, there are growing signs of resistance. Over the last few years there have been escalating petitions and protests, which are directed not just towards employers but also to local state officials. There are also more and more reports of factory go-slows where workers arrive at the factory and then refuse to work.

Women are already at the centre of the battles taking place in Chinese factories. Migrant women workers in particular are likely to be at the forefront of future struggles against the Chinese state and the bosses of companies like Foxconn.