China’s Hidden Workers at Home and Abroad

Chinese workers at a beancurd factory in north London. (c) Hsiao-Hung Pai.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is a London based journalist who has spent several years researching the working lives of undocumented Chinese migrant workers in Britain, sometimes even going undercover. In this article, she shows us a China we often hear about but never take the time to see, and tells us how she came to care, and why she still cares. We will also publish an excerpt from her new book, Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants, tomorrow, here on Litro [update: here].

One of the first things that got me writing about the plight of many Chinese migrants living and working in Britain was the social response to the two most heartbreaking tragedies involving them. The first was the Dover tragedy, where 58 Chinese were suffocated to death at the back of a lorry coming into Britain. The second was the Morecambe Bay disaster, where 23 Chinese migrants drowned while picking cockles in Lancashire.

People were shocked, of course, but generally, mainstream British society and media displayed ignorance and misconception about these migrants’ backgrounds and their work-seeking journeys. Social prejudices about ethnic minority communities were amplified through the media, shaping and reinforcing the view that the causes of these tragedies were simply the human smuggling trade and the criminal organisations that enabled border crossing.

Even the Chinese communities in Britain were silent, and sadly, displayed an attitude of indifference based on class distinction and elitism. These attitudes were pronounced by many of the so-called Chinese community leaders and their organisations, who do not in any way represent the Chinese workers who died working in Britain. It was infuriating to hear Chinese community leaders, businessmen and middle-class artists talk as if the workers’ deaths were none of their business. They were of a different class, people without capital or power. No one seemed interested in hearing their perspectives.

In the following years, I explored the lives of Britain’s Chinese migrant workers. I went to interview many of them in factories and farms, in their workplaces and dormitories. I visited them again and again. I followed their stories. I went to find out about the death of Zhang Guohua, a former peasant who worked himself to death in a factory supplying Samsung in Hartlepool. I went to stay with men and women who were working for salad processing factories supplying Tesco. Then a man said to me: “To really understand this working life, you need to work and live like us.”

Hsiao-Hung working undercover at Grampian’s factory, Suffolk.

That was the first time the idea of working undercover came to me. Since then, I have worked undercover as a meat processor, a lettuce picker, a book factory worker, a restaurant waitress, and a brothel housekeeper. These experiences have helped tremendously in my effort to understand the reality of working as an undocumented migrant worker (and not just the Chinese) in a country like Britain, and which culminated in Chinese Whispers.

Many of the Chinese migrant workers I met had come from its rural parts. Some had worked on land all their lives. I wondered about their personal and family histories and how they had ended up selling their labour for cheap in Britain. I knew that tracing this migration would be a huge task, so I decided to focus on three groups of migrant workers: those who have migrated from the countryside to the cities within China; those who have migrated abroad; and the migrant workers in Britain who have achieved the dream of improving the lives of their families. The aim is to get a glimpse at the material circumstances that have motivated people to leave home and migrate, either into the cities or abroad, and to understand what has kept this migration going despite the difficulties in reaching their destination countries and the hardship that they will surely face when they arrive.

In writing Scattered Sand, I made many journeys of my own. I met northeastern Chinese migrants working in Moscow, Siberian towns and the border region. I befriended migrant jobseekers in Shenyang and followed one of them to Beijing, where he worked in the security industry. I visited the earthquake-affected Sichuan, and saw how migrant workers returned home to shattered villages and how they desperately sought compensation while trying to find work again. I travelled to the building sites and brick kilns of the northern towns and to the isolated factories of Shaoguan, Dongguan and Guangzhou of the manufacturing south. I saw how migrant workers’ aspirations and dreams to improve life for their families were shattered by the recession and the wave of lay-offs. I followed them from the dazzling special economic zone cities to the impoverished coal-mining villages of Henan. And finally, I travelled from central to northern Fujian, where communities were rebuilt thanks to remittances from abroad.

Through these journeys, I was sometimes able to establish friendships with the people I interviewed. During my research, I also relied mostly on railway to travel from place to place, which I found useful in terms of meeting migrants and interacting with them on a more personal level, as I often shared cabins with people. I usually met people at random (although occasionally with the introduction of my contacts), and as a consequence, I believe that the stories I’ve heard are representative of the reality of working life in which the majority of migrant workers find themselves.

What saddens me is to see how marginalised this group of workers are, though they are a massive group: over 200 million, an estimated 130 million of whom have migrated out of their provinces, while an additional 70 million migrants migrate within their provinces. They represent half of China’s urban workforce and are responsible for half of China’s GDP and yet, they are the least organized as a workforce and experience institutional discrimination and segregation. This segregation is maintained via the hukou system, a household registration system which works similarly to immigration controls and keeps the rural divided from the urban. Through hukou, migrant workers enjoy no basic rights and have little access to public services and education.

Migrant workers have bore and continue to bear the brunt of the impact of China’s opening up to global capitalism in the past three decades. Corruption, poor healthcare, poverty in the interior, and the widening wealth gap between cities and the countryside continue to motivate them to move in search of greener pastures; yet, the promise of a secure livelihood in the cities is often an empty one. Since 2007, the recession has both propelled and retarded migration. More than 600,000 small and medium sized firms closed down in China in 2008, throwing millions out of work. I witnessed many migrant workers returning home without any pay. The area most affected was the export-led manufacturing heartland of southern China, where millions of migrants from rural Sichuan, Henan, Hunan, Guangxi, Yunan and other interior provinces congregate to make a living.

In mid-2009, migrants went back into the cities again searching for work, as there appeared a shortage of labour in the factories. To lure workers back, local governments raised the very low minimum wage level, but it still remains 40-60% of the local average wage level. The rural-urban divide continues. Nearly 100 million migrant workers under 30 years old, who are the backbone of China’s industries, are still earning about half the income of urban residents. But the recent waves of spontaneous strikes show that they are not tolerating this second-class status any longer. They want higher pay, better conditions, and the right to organise their own union.

When the Chinese media talk of the “Chinese nation” as “one big family” and the 21st century being “the Chinese century”, it reminds me of the same notion of a “Chinese community” and the rhetoric of social cohesion that I often hear about among the British Chinese elite. What does a “Chinese community” mean to a Chinese worker toiling in a London kitchen for two thirds of the national minimum hourly wage? What can “national pride” mean when a large section of working-class people are having to cope with their exploitation on their own?

Scattered Sand was first published on 21 August 2012 by Verso Books (UK), available now in hardcover and ebook. Hsiao-Hung Pai will be speaking about her book at a Foyles event as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 21 November. Her first book on Chinese immigrants in Britain, Chinese Whispers, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Orwell Prize, is available fromPenguin UK. Both books are available on (also on Kindle) for US readers.