Part 1 of a 7-part series recording a short excursion into the lives of migrant workers at the beginning of China’s working year, in an industrial district of Shenzhen.
It was a few days after the lunar new year when I first got here. The 5th, by that calendar. As I soon found out, it was too early yet for hiring. But peak hiring time would start on the 8th, just a few days later.
Here is one of the many industrial areas of Shenzhen, where factories amassed over the once-rural landscape of Shenzhen. I came to this spot because it’s full of smaller factories, the kind that take all kinds and are more lax (though perhaps more aggressive) in their management. My first two days were spent looking fruitlessly for work, met with “work hasn’t started yet” at every gate. The few places that were starting to consider people were larger factories with 1000+ workers, though even most of those had stopped production until the 8th and were merely hiring in advance. The places most eager to recruit me, those that had started work early, were the hiring centers, the middlemen. They were working overtime. On almost every corner one or two people sat with tables full of sign-up sheets and a racket of cardboard signs. These recruiters are paid commission (many have no base salary) to recruit unsuspecting or desperate job seekers to factories.
But the recruiters are just regular dagongzai and dagongmei1 as well. I chatted at length with one on my first day of job hunting, after making several brushed-off inquiries to factory gatekeepers, most of whom replied: if you see no sign posted out here, we’re not hiring. I later learned this was true. This was the rule of thumb: look for the message board, because there will be one if factory HR is back at work. The recruiters, in any case, were advertising a number of factories I had already inquired about, that said they weren’t hiring. They also promised I could start working that same day, so I decided to ask a few questions. There was one factory in particular—a large Japanese electronics factory—that was hiring female workers en masse. No males. This was the only factory that the recruiters weren’t charging a fee to get into. There may have been hidden fees later on in the process, as is the rule with middlemen, but nothing up front at least, whereas the charge was 200-600 for other factories. To put this in perspective: 600 is a third of a month’s base salary, and enough to survive on for a month if you’re thrifty and live in a dorm.
When I said I’d be willing to consider the factory, one of the recruiters grabbed his motorcycle and told me to get on. He would take me to their hiring center to fill out a proper form. Some of the recruiters, it turns out, work for centers like these, in back alleys, doing hiring services. They recruit people for the centers, the centers take a hefty fee from applicants, and recruiters get commission. The place I was whisked to was a decent looking place in a not-so decent looking back alley. A clean and proper sign identifying the building with large glass windows, inside of which was a heavy wooden desk laden with papers. There were four or five other people there, asking about jobs and fees or filling things out. After the in house recruiter, a large pudgy man in a clean suit, confirmed where I wanted to work, he handed me an application form on which I was to indicate basic info, a work history (my latest job was enough, no need to fill out any more), and some info about my parents. He made a point of recording the name of the recruiter who had brought me. The application cost me 10 yuan up front. For now there were no more fees, but its common knowledge that middlemen catch you at the factory door. They’ll take your IDs to process, as you hop on the bus to the factory, then refuse to hand them over until you pay a “transport fee.” Without your ID, you can’t get into the factory. With my form safely filed and my ID safely back in my hands, they send me on my way and told me to come back in three days time, much later than they had originally promised. Given the rather disappointing circumstances, when I noticed people crowding around another sign for a labor dispatch company on my way out, I went to take a look.
This second building was diagonally across the narrow alley from the first recruitment house. A couple of bare concrete rooms with a weather-worn sign slung across the back wall—blue background, red letters arranged in a way that somehow made the colors clash. A dusty-looking pup ran around on the floor, and in a room stretching off to one side was a table with half-eaten plates of chopped meat and withered vegetables, the sole proprietor’s lunch, covered with a pink mosquito net. The proprietor’s name was Old Lin. At least that’s what the sign outside indicated, along with Lin’s phone number and the name of his business. The job ads were plastered up with profuse amounts of tape in a long row on the front wall of the little place. Old Lin was a man of hefty proportions, older, with a belly that suggested plenty of drinking and a comfortable life. He wore a plain purple polo that showed off the belly. I asked him if he had any jobs available for someone like me—peak hiring age, the right gender, but only a temporary ID—and he said he thought he could do something about it. He made a quick call, sounded like someone he contacted frequently, not much of a greeting, and asked if the temp ID would work. They gave the okay. It was a Japanese plastics factory. A large one with plenty of overtime, meaning high monthly earnings. Decent benefits as well, he advertised. I was in the clear and to come back the next morning at 8 a.m.. He would take me there immediately. The question I saved til last: the fee. 200 yuan. I gave him a reluctant nod, and headed out the door to look at some of the other signs posted on his wall. He seemed to get the message, and came back out. I’ll get you in for 100, he offered. I nodded. Not something I was interested in paying, but I’d leave the option open. If you work as my , there’s no fee, he said, but these are proper jobs, so I have to take an introduction fee.
The next day I got up early and went looking for work again, rushing to one factory I had heard was hiring. Large factories tend to have their own campuses, with gates and a few security guards. Hiring almost always takes place at 8 a.m., when the morning shift starts, or 1:30 in the afternoon, after lunch. People line up outside the gates and wait for the recruiters to come out. At large factories, that can amount to lots of people, even before the 8th, when most people haven’t yet returned from the countryside. Everybody gets herded inside like cattle, and then the forms are filled out and tests are done en masse. The factory I went to had a handful of people lining up as early as 7:30. As the daylight got brighter, more people trickled over until there were a dozen of us standing at the gate. It was now 8:30, after the time hiring should have begun. We asked the guards. Just wait for the recruiters, they said.
While we were standing there, the more outgoing of the job seekers started up conversations. A short, wiry and tough-looking young man (old by factory standards though) was the most interesting one in the crowd. He mentioned some other, better factories that were hiring. Only girls though. There was this Japanese factory down the road that always had loads of work and loads of overtime, so one could make 4,000-5,000 yuan per month during peak season. Two girls overhearing seemed interested, asked a few more questions. He’d worked here a while. He and his wife both. She was working in another okay place a little ways away. He seemed to know all the factories around here, like a guidebook. Which ones had little overtime, which ones had evil managers, which ones had better benefits and decent dorms. It turns out he’d been in the area since at least 2006. He worked in one factory for 6 years, which is a long time for a worker in Shenzhen, where most people switch jobs every 2 or 3 years, if not several times a year. He left that factory because there was no room for promotion. When he left, he‘d tried to make a ruckus. Something about unpaid benefits. In any case, he had some electrician’s training, and he was coming to factory gates with one condition: he wanted to work as an electrician and nothing else. Being here early he had a good chance, though as factories filled up after the Spring Festival, finding work that fit strict conditions would be harder.
Rather late to join the crowd was a young woman, just over thirty I guessed. She was short and rail thin, worn the way factory work wears you. She had two children, at home with their grandparents and both going to school. She lived across the street from the factory in a studio apartment. The fact that it had an elevator meant the rent was sky high—600 yuan per . She showed me her hands. One thumb was swollen, slightly bent back. I only worked there for a month and a half, she said, and my hand is like this. She’d switched jobs 6 times the previous year, unhappy with all the places she’d landed. At the last one, she’d been inserting wires, a job I’ve heard others say is painful too, and if you have experience, they’re likely to put you back in that position. It involves pushing wires in with your fingertips, using quite a bit of force. Done repeatedly and rapidly, it’s likely to make your fingertips swell. My new companion was looking for a job closer to home, so she wouldn’t have to bike to work every day. She lived across the street and was hoping to get into this factory for this reason, but was worried about her age. This factory had wire inserting roles, so she was worried too they’d put her back on that job.
After waiting for an hour outside, we finally figured out recruitment wasn’t happening at the gate when a worker came by and asked why we weren’t waiting inside. We headed inside towards the dorm buildings, on the first floor of which was a tiny recruitment office, a few square feet, with a desk for the recruiter and maybe enough room to interview one person. It was another half hour wait before the recruiter arrived, in the stockings and high heels that many office workers like to wear to indicate their status, usually paired with miniskirts, as is the fashion here. A slight way of distinguishing themselves from those who basically got the same pay but did supposedly more menial physical work.
Our recruiter fumbled for the keys to the creaky metal door of her office while instructing us to stay seated. We would fill out our forms outside. We were each given two forms, except for the one quality control applicant (high school education required), who received a specialset. Ours consisted of a basic info form and a test. The test had four portions. The first: write the 26 letters of the English alphabet in lower case (people tend to be more familiar with the capital letters). The second: ten simple addition/subtraction/multiplication/division math problems. The third: a test for recognition of “physics” symbols, such as C for capacity, or R for resistance, and IC for integrated capacity. Finally, a section to write about your strengths and weaknesses. Everybody had problems with the third section, some had issues with the second, and most of the older applicants (over 30) had some trouble with the first. Younger applicants quickly thought to whip out their phones and look up the answers, while older applicants crowded around and copied. It took somewhere near half an hour to fill out the form and answer the one page of questions. The forms were followed by a (very lenient) vision test, and then applicants were subjected to a group interview. I didn’t make it through to the interview, but it’s likely that everyone else was hired. The factories needed all the workers they could get at the time, Spring Festival having left most factories well under half-staffed.
I spent another two hours wandering around, looking for other factories that might be hiring, but it was clear that today was not the day to be hired. Unless it was through the recruiting companies. Spotting me again that day, the job placement company recruiter who had given me a ride earlier asked if I was interested in joining his company, as a recruiter. They were hiring too.
Read part 2 of this series on the Chuang website here.
- 1 i.e. “working guys” and “working sisters” – young migrants from rural areas.