We Want to Work
Half a year ago, Guo Xiaoming and his two friends were coworkers at a Taiwan-joint-venture factory. With the closure of the factory, their fates also changed.
– By reporter Liu Zichao from Dongguan
“Left with Nothing Overnight”
Holding his bike, Guo Xiaoming stands outside the gate of the Tianhua Furniture Factory with sweaty under arms. Here is Humen Town, Dongguan. Under the scorching sun, the green factory building seems spacious but lonely. Many times, when he passed here at dusk, he kept noticing the palm trees close by the gate already withered and cobwebs collecting dust.
“I had worked here for eleven years.” He told the gate guard. Then he lit a cigarette as if he was waiting for the arrival of tomorrow.
Now, Guo Xiaoming, 37, is working in the Xingyi Glass Factory as a quality inspector. His salary is less than half of his previous job. He started working in the Tianhua Furniture Factory in 1997. Before the factory was closed, he was a supervisor at the packaging group, earning more than 3,000 yuan every month.
Guo Xiaoming recalled, last October, when the surrounding shoe factories and electronics factories were closed, the workers at Tianhua felt lucky that their products were for the U.S. Although there were some changes for this big 20-year-old Taiwanese factory, nobody believed that it would collapse suddenly.
One Sunday afternoon, the news of the factory owner’s departure started spreading among more than six hundred workers. When Guo Xiaoming rushed to the factory, he saw the angry suppliers were just about to take away the machines as compensation for the debt. "It came so abruptly, we did not believe it was true." Guo said.
Finally, the Ludong Village Committee in Humen Town took over the Tianhua Factory and paid off workers’ wages. That afternoon, in the factory field, a long row of tables was laid out. The workers lined up by their departments to receive their last salaries. The loud speakers kept telling workers who received their salaries to leave the factory.
The young workers left after receiving the money. But Guo Xiaoming felt sad. At a small restaurant outside the factory, over a dozen veteran workers who had worked there for more than ten years sat down in silence. They looked like fearful youth who did not know where to go.
"After all I had worked here for so many years," Guo Xiaoming said, “It seems that nothing is left overnight.”
Like Guo Xiaoming, Zhou Rongqin began working in Tianhua in the 90’s. He tried to stay in Dongguan but all the jobs he found only paid a few hundred yuan per month which was not enough to support the family. What he worried about the most was his son, who was in his third year (last year) of middle school.
“I want him to continue with school so that he will not end up like me.” Zhou said, “But that requires a lot of money.”
Zhou Rongqin had to go back to his hometown, Qinzhou City, Guangxi Province. He works on temporary jobs to make a living. His wife was a worker in Tianhua as well. Now she becomes a housewife without any income.
“I have worked so many years. According to the law, one year of work experience would be compensated with a month of salary. I suppose that I could get seventy to eighty thousand yuan severance pay.” Zhou talked to us over the phone from Guangxi, “we have sued Tianhua Factory. But the village committee had taken out over one million from their pocket to pay the workers. Nobody knows how much we can get from the auction of the factory’s property.”
Another worker, Xiao Pingliang, had worked in Tianhua for 18 years. He started to feel the fear of not being connected to the world for so long. Now, the life he used to live became something far away in his memory.
“I worked in the furniture factory for over ten years, almost twenty years. I had almost never left Dongguan during that time,” Xiao Pingliang said, “Now, I am almost 40 and have to leave here. I feel incompetent.”
Life without a Job
In the days without work, Guo Xiaoming would buy a newspaper and sit in the residential square. After reading the newspaper, he went to the factory and circled around there. Sometimes, he would stare at the seal at the factory gate for a long time.
One day, when he was watching international news on TV, he saw a room with furniture just like Tianhua’s products. He jumped excitedly to call his wife to come and see. But then his heart suddenly sunk with the painful realization that Tianhua no longer existed.
For Guo Xiaoming, over ten years of life working in the factory was just like a dream. When he woke up from that long dream, he still faced the pressure of making a living. He likes to recall his life as a young man.
At that time, he and his friends processed fast-food chopsticks for three to four years in Guilin City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The raw chopsticks were shipped from Daxing’anling, Heilongjiang Province, one container after another. They processed them and sold them to local restaurants.
Every day at dusk, he rode his tricycle through many streets in Guiling City. Sometimes when he slept late at night, he would be woken up by phone calls the next morning, urging him to deliver the chopsticks. Though life was hard he didn’t really feel much hardship.
He liked to roller skate. One day, at the ice rink he met a girl who worked in an ice-cream parlor. From then on, hand in hand, their mellow lives flew by. That girl became his wife.
In 1997, since Guo Xiaoming didn’t have the temporary residence permit to live in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, he had to hide to avoid being caught by the police. The inspector always showed up at late night. When he heard noise, he had to jump out the window. Once when he hid in the bushes by the river, he fell asleep and fell into the river, almost getting himself killed.
His wife felt sorry for him, “Let’s not to live a life in hiding like this anymore. All right?”
Now, these low feelings were vanishing. Without a job, Guo Xiaoming felt the pressure of surviving. When a fellow from his hometown who also lost his job invited him to join a casino business in Shunde City, Guangdong Province, he decided to take the risk.
Guo secretly took out twenty thousand yuan that he saved over years and joined the business. They rented a room at a top-class hotel and provided room and meal for their customers coming for gambling. In return, they collected a portion from the customers’ gambling money. Guo said that their most profitable night was an income of 120,000 yuan. However, they had to spend more than half of their money on the gangsters and police to stay in business.
The two months he spent on this business felt longer than two years. Guo Xiaoming learned how to gamble and run a loan shark business. He slept through the day but woke up horrified by the dream of being caught by the police. He called home a few times but he had a bad temper and shouted at his wife. After he hung up, he blamed himself deeply.
Finally he took his investment and left. After the Chinese New Year, when he was walking in the snow in his hometown in Hunan Province, he decided to come back to Dongguan. “I want to find a normal job as long as it is enough to make a living.” He said, “(I have been here for) eleven years, this is the place I am most familiar with.”
For the unemployed workers who worked outside their hometown all year round, the hometown is not as warm as it used to be. With the urbanization of their homeland, much of the farmland was lost – this is one of the reasons why Xiao Pingliang decided to continue drifting outside his hometown.
Xiao has been living at the Tianhua factory for more than ten years. He worked all days but one every month and rarely leaves the Road East community in Humen Town. Xiao Pingliang is very accustomed to the world here, but overnight, he found that his position disappeared in the city where he had lived for more than a decade. The financial crisis in a far far away world suddenly threw him out of his track. It is not easy to find another job nearby; it feels like a pebble in his shoe, every step brings pain.
“I don’t dare to work for a small company; I am worried that the company will also go bankrupt,” said Xiao Pingliang. “There is no job security in a small company, it could go belly up tomorrow and no one cares about you.”
In this financial turmoil, the "world factory" was deeply hurt. Many large plants closed overnight, the remaining ones are struggling to survive by cutting staff and costs. According to the statistics released on March 3 by Guangdong Provincial Department of Labor and Social Security, there were 9.46 million migrant workers who came to Guangdong Province after the Chinese New Year, of which 460,000 are unemployed.
"I visited Dongguan job market also," said Xiao Pingliang, "but jobs offered there are mostly for white-collar workers."
"I still would like to work for a furniture factory. I have 10 years of work experience, I feel competent working in this field." However, it is a difficult time for the furniture industry in Dongguan. At Houjie Township of Dongguan city, the so-called "furniture capital of the East," a survey conducted by the local Department of Labor shows that the furniture industry is running only at 60% of its capacity. After failing to find a good job, many people lowered their expectations. Having lost hope of finding a job in Dongguan, Xiao Pingliang went to Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province where his brother is residing.
Guo Xiaoming stayed in Humen. He saw the job announcement of fifteen positions by Xingyi glass factory. By the time Guo Xiaoming got there, there were more than one hundred people already waiting for interview. They filled a large gymnasium. The first step of the interview was to check everyone’s ID, then an exam of general knowledge (including writing the names of the authors of four famous Chinese novels). After that, everyone had to do push-ups – the glass factory jobs involve heavy labor.
Guo fell on the floor at his 26th push-up. The HR person said, “You are older than most others and have a family, I will count four more for you as a present.”
Guo Xiaoming said he always wanted to find a chance to thank that person and show his gratitude. Compared with his coworkers who are still unemployed, Guo said he felt lucky.
“This is a hopeless situation. So many big banks in America went bankrupt. When the big river dried up, little streams would dry up too.” Guo Xiaoming said, “Once I saw on TV that many American people could not afford a lot of things that they used to buy during Christmas time. Comparing their situation and mine, I felt a bit of comfort, yet it still seems not so comfortable.”
Today, Guo Xiaoming is doing everything he can to cut costs. He moved from an apartment that costs 240 yuan per month to one that only cost 180 yuan. He had bought a pair of “Anta” brand sneakers before but he would not buy them anymore. He spends his evening time at community square watching elderly people singing and dancing as entertainment.
Guo could not stop himself from missing the good old days at the bankrupted Tianhua factory. “The boss is nice. He was never late paying us for over ten years. Coworkers are nice to each other too. There was not much stress at work. What else could you want? I thought I would stay there forever.”
In more than ten years, people like Guo Xiaoming stayed at the same place doing the same work. They built the same routine. Today as the world of Tianhua factory collapsed, all of sudden they found themselves in an unclear position. They were pushed forward, but do not know where to go.
At the Guangzhou Train Station, Xiao Pingliang stayed at a corner waiting for his brother. He was tired and nervous, he felt relieved when he saw his brother coming on his bicycle. He went through the crowd and carefully got on the back of his brother’s bike, they disappeared in the crowded and noisy city.
 “We Want to Work,” Nanfang People Weekly, April 13, 2009