China’s ‘migrant’ workers live dangerously, filmmaker says

Police gather at a protest area, in a scene from filmmaker Huang Wendi’s We the Workers, a three-hour documentary on the conditions of factory laborers in the Pearl River Delta. Image Courtesy of Huang Wenhai

NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (UPI) — The hundreds of millions of Chinese migrant workers who toil away in the factories that have made the world’s second-largest economy a manufacturing behemoth are changing, getting older and demanding rights, according to a veteran Chinese documentary filmmaker.

Huang Wenhai, who spent a year living in congested migrant quarters while filming his documentary “We the Workers,” said the 282 million migrant workers in China, who leave their rural hometowns to cram themselves in booming cities, are poorly understood.

“They are such a huge population in China but their public visibility is out of date,” Huang said, following the screening of his latest film at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on Friday.

Huang’s 2017 documentary, a grueling three-hour film that focuses on a tightly organized group of labor activists in the Pearl River Delta, adjacent to Hong Kong, follows their struggles as they defend workers’ rights.

Unpaid wages, wrongful dismissal and intimidation from hired thugs are not uncommon experiences for migrant workers who grind away along China’s southern coast, where Taiwanese and Japanese manufacturers have built factories.

The term “migrant” may also not be the best description of the population.

Huang’s film includes intimate portrayals of several activist-workers, who have been away from their families, for years, if not decades.

Migrants who do not return

The documentary’s main protagonist, the middle-aged Peng Jiayong, lives alone in a crude flat with basic amenities in the city of Guangzhou.

Peng is married, but says he has “given up family,” including his child, after migrating to the city in 2003.

“It’s hard to say whether I’ll go home,” Peng says in the film, adding he “couldn’t get along with his wife.”

“She’s the selfish, greedy type,” Peng tells Huang, who stays off-camera. “And I’m not materialistic.”

Peng also says he does not go home during major holidays, when Chinese migrant workers are often depicted moving en masse to return to their hometowns.

In the absence of family gatherings around the dinner table, Peng finds camaraderie with fellow activists, with whom he dines, organizes or sings karaoke in one of Guangzhou’s nightlife districts.

Another activist, a younger man who goes by the name of Xiaoming, occasionally visits his parents in a remote province.

But the family home feels barren.

In one scene, Xiaoming explains to Huang his parents are not talking after his father had kicked his mother — an incident that prompts the young activist to threaten to withdraw his financial support.

Back in the city, Xiaoming is seen in a better mood, and more energized, as he organizes workers at the Panyu Workers’ Center and Haige Labor Center in Guangdong.

Living dangerously

Despite the solidarity of the activists, beneath the exchange of jokes during labor meetings or pep talks, lies a sense of anxiety of pending retribution from powerful factory bosses.

Peng, who is seen in one scene rallying other activists, later appears in a hospital bed, badly bruised after a beating incident.

Peng, who worked in jewelry and shoe factories, said he was dragged to a van by thugs, who blindfolded, handcuffed and kicked him.

“They stopped at a roadside, kicked me in the head,” Peng says in the film. “Seven to eight guys, they beat me all over, until there was blood all over my body.”

But the incident does not change his determination to continue fighting for rights.

The group is later seen celebrating an $18 million settlement, in 2015, that would go toward compensating 2,750 workers once employed at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory.

Labor issues for the Chinese leadership

China’s factory workforce is maturing and demanding higher wages.

The migrant worker population is also enormous, Huang told UPI after the film’s screening.

“I think the new political power [in China], they are facing this big problem, which is the economic problem” surrounding the migrant worker population, the filmmaker said.

The solution to addressing labor is organizing and building a civil society where workers can collectively bargain their rights without intimidation, he added.

Beijing has stressed poverty alleviation, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to wipe out poverty by 2020, to fulfill a Communist Party objective of constructing a “moderately prosperous society,” according to the South China Morning Post.

But China has yet to address the rights of workers to protest poor working conditions or subpar wages.

“When we finished the filming, right after we finished, many of the [film’s] protagonists were detained, sentenced to jail,” Huang said.

“Chinese workers are faceless.”


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