Postcard — May 7, 2015, 8:00 am

The Barracks Are Cast of Iron

Working in a Chinese foam factory

Workers napping while they wait for a load of foam to come out of the oven. Photograph by the author

On September 3, 2013, I arrived at a worker’s dormitory in Guangdong, China, to find my new roommate sprawled out on a plywood bunk in the corner of the small and musty room. He was wearing a hot-pink uniform emblazoned with the letters EPS—for expanded polystyrene, a material used to make foam packaging, bicycle helmets, and a slew of other products sold abroad. He and 269 other workers at the JinBao Foam Factory1 manufactured roughly 130,000 foam pieces and 9,000 helmet baskets a day. JinBao is one of 208,900 companies in the city of Dongguan, which, with a GDP of $94 billion, is among China’s preeminent manufacturing hubs. 

1: The names of the factory and general manager have been changed.

JinBao owned the dormitory; I was scheduled to begin work at the factory the following day. Our room slept eight, but my roommate, a wiry twenty-seven-year-old with friendly eyes who introduced himself as Mo Rupeng, appeared to be its only occupant. Mo was from a 1,400-person village in rural Guangxi called Fugao Cun, where his wife and two children still lived. Like many migrants to Dongguan, Mo had grown up on stories of China’s booming industrial cities. When his older cousin would return home from the city, he told stories of wild nights out at beer stands, karaoke bars, and a roller skating rink as big as three basketball courts. “Dongguan was new and fresh, somewhere I could be free,” Mo recalled. When Mo turned seventeen, he gathered his $300 life savings and ran away from home. Two days later he arrived in Dongguan. “My parents told me to come home immediately,” he said. “But I said no, no, I am going to stay.” That was ten years ago.

Aside from the plywood bunks and a dilapidated chest of lockers, our room’s concrete floor was bare. The air felt and smelled like glue. I attributed the miasma to a pool of effervescent green sludge that collected under a pair of pink uniforms Mo had hung up to dry. When I laid out my quilt and pillow on one of the plywood planks, the fresh linens attracted a bug the size of a pinhead. It was red and black and so small that its six legs were nearly invisible. Then, another arrived. Before long, my bed was swarming with the tiny insects. “Have you seen any of these bugs?” I asked Mo.

“Yes, they are everywhere!” he said, “I don’t know what they are. They suck your blood. You will see, when they bite you, it itches so badly, much, much worse than a mosquito bite.” He turned away from me and tugged the shirt from his back. “Look!” he shouted. His skin was covered in shining red bumps clustered across his shoulders, upper back, and neck. “Those bugs did this.” He grimaced and waved at the other bunks. “The other men said they are called bedbugs. They said you can’t get rid of them. They all moved out.” 

The front gate of JinBao’s campus is guarded by a plump, cherubic man called Xiao Li. He is always looking to recruit new workers to address the factory’s turnover rate, which is 8 percent a month. “We take the workers no one else wants,” he told me. “We want peasants who are dark-skinned.2 They can chi ku,” he said, meaning they can endure hardship. “We’ll take anyone who can chi ku.”

2: The factory denied favoring dark-skinned workers.

At last count, in 2013, China’s National Bureau of Statistics tallied 84 million migrant factory workers. Figures on how many millions are squirrelled away inside Dongguan’s factories are hard to pinpoint. An employee at the Dongguan Statistical Bureau told me the city had 4.34 million registered migrants. “It’s really impossible to know, as many don’t bother to register, and turnover is constant,” she added. But evidence that the labor supply hasn’t met the demand is visible across the sprawling industrial city. Recruitment banners blanket factory walls, and employment information booths stretch from factory gates like strings of Christmas lights.

JinBao’s five-acre campus is made up of an office block, the dormitory where I lived with Mo, and three massive, white-tiled concrete buildings, each stained brown by the exhaust from coal-fired boilers. Behind the six-and-a-half-foot concrete wall that surrounds the complex, the factory steams and hisses and groans, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and workers labor on either the day or night shift. (“Ice skating, horseback riding, bicycling,” one worker said to me. “You foreigners wear helmets for fucking everything these days! That’s why we stand here all day and night.”) Raw EPS arrives at the factory as fine, white plastic beads, which a series of machines then expand into foam using steam. Day and night, the temperature on the un-air-conditioned production floor can reach the low triple digits.3

3: According to a factory spokesperson, the factory is only open six days a week, and though the production floor is not air conditioned for environmental reasons, fresh air is circulated throughout the building to keep temperatures down.

JinBao’s general manager is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and a finely manicured smile. She does her best to keep workers from leaving. According to Mo, his first month’s pay was withheld in an effort to prevent him from quitting. Other workers echoed this claim as well. (A factory spokesperson told Harper’s Magazine that JinBao never withholds a worker’s salary.) Her management style is firm and fastidious—cameras broadcast the factory’s inner workings to her office, security guards jump to attention in her presence, and random strolls through the factory buildings keep workers on their toes. “If you are to be a worker,” she told me when we first met, “you must call me General Manager Tang.”

At eight the following morning, I clocked in for my first day and began work on the production building’s second floor, where I was tasked with prying newly formed helmets from their molds. Only a fifth of the facility’s machines were devoted to helmet production; the rest made foam packaging, which JinBao produces in various shapes and sizes and sells to manufacturers shipping computers, printers, speakers, and televisions around the world. Machines mold the packaging pieces and drop them down a cloth chute to the floor below, where workers like Mo each collect at least five thousand of them a day.

“The collecting is not so bad,” Mo told me. “I reach and stack and walk in a circle all day long. It’s the noise and water I can’t bear. The machines are so loud I can’t even think, and the boiling water is always splashing down on my head.” He wore a straw hat, rain boots, and earplugs as he shuffled from one cloth chute to the next. Mo could complete a lap in two minutes. According to the department foreman, he was one of the factory’s fastest foam pickers. His coworkers were all far older—balding men with weathered faces and empty eyes. In Dongguan, forty-year-olds were over the hill. “Our hands get slow,” one told me. “The electronics factories don’t want us anymore.”

4: This paragraph was added after publication.

In Dongguan, the monthly minimum wage translated to about $1.32 an hour. But, when it came to overtime, many workers claimed they didn’t receive any hourly pay—which, by law, should be at least 150 percent of their wage during normal working hours. Instead, the factory paid them a small sum for every piece of foam they collected during their shift, and this, some workers told me, added up to less than the hourly wage for overtime work. And, they said, when they brought the issue to the factory’s trade union, they discovered that General Manager Tang also happened to be its chairwoman. (The factory spokesperson denied both of these claims.) A forty-year-old worker from Yunnan recalled how he had taken a pay dispute to the local Labor Bureau. “The cadres sighed and said if the pay is too low I can find a new job. The labor law is written well. The foreign media sees it and thinks this country protects its workers, but when it comes to enforcing the law, that is not the case.”4

Two weeks after I arrived at JinBao, I found Mo sprawled on his bamboo mat in our dormitory room. He told me he’d called in sick from work and mumbled about how he’d put in his resignation the month before. In ten days, he added, he could collect his wages and leave. After weeks of eleven-hour shifts spent walking in circles collecting foam, he told me his only two thoughts were, “I need to find a way out of the factories” and “I hope my children will never be this tired.”

A few days later, Mo and I made the midmonth rotation to the night shift. Because the office workers are asleep, the cafeteria service—which at the time was contracted out to General Manager Tang’s brother—served leftovers from dinner as well as pork fat and rice. On the factory floor, absent the day-shift supervisors, workers wandered around collecting “Voluntary Work Overtime” applications to use as toilet paper in the factory’s unserviced outhouse. In time, I came to know these sheets of soft paper as JinBao Charmin.

An hour before our third consecutive night shift was to start, Mo was resting on his bamboo mat. His skin was pale, and his glassy eyes bore into the ceiling. “When it gets to this time,” he said suddenly, “my head starts to hurt. No part of me wants to go. I only slept for four hours. It is too grueling here. I cannot go on picking foam.”

I reminded him he had only seven nights left until he could pick up his wages and leave, but he was inconsolable. “My responsibility is too heavy,” he said. “Without the help of my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to support my family this month. I will work forty-one days here and earn sixteen to twenty-two dollars a day—that cannot support six people. The prospects for my sister’s future are bright. She works in a factory office and enjoys the breeze of air-conditioning. I will always be a laborer.”

On September 23, one night short of his last shift, Mo vanished. His bamboo mat disappeared from the plywood bunk, as did his shoes, cell phone charger, and small bag of personal items. JinBao’s foreman replaced him with a twenty-seven-year-old Sichuanese man. But a few minutes into the man’s first shift, he walked off the factory floor.

“Mo’s replacement has left,” the foreman said when he came to find me. “We need you to take his place.”

I looked at the time. “Five minutes into the shift and he’s already gone?”

“It was probably closer to three or four minutes. He couldn’t chi ku. What can you do?” the foreman said. Li sent a man from Chongqing in next, then one from Guizhou, then a forty-three-year-old from Yunnan.

Two weeks later, on a brisk morning in mid October, Mo appeared at the JinBao factory gate wearing his pink uniform. He pulled the shirt from his back to show me that his bedbug rash had healed. He told me he’d spent fifteen days resting in Guangxi and then returned to Dongguan. “I wanted to work in another factory around here. All my friends from home are in the area. The last two days I’ve been checking out the other factories but they’re all the same.”

Mo would spend another two months working at the JinBao foam factory. About a month after I left, a twenty-year-old JinBao worker climbed into a machine to retrieve a bicycle helmet. But when he reached for it, the two-ton steel mold snapped shut.

“I saw it,” Mo later told me. “Blood was pouring down the cloth chute, and the pool of water on the floor had turned completely red. I looked up for a second, but I couldn’t see anything. My heart started fluttering. I left the cart and ran out of the room. I ended up at the staircase, and I saw the janitor walking upstairs, so I followed behind him. The helmet machines had all stopped, and the men were gone. Blood was everywhere, splattering the floor and the surrounding machines. Three inches of space remained between the two mold faces. I looked in. His head was squished into an unrecognizable shape. One of his eyes had popped out of the socket. It was horrifying.” General Manager Tang’s video cameras showed that the boy had hit the wrong button before he climbed into the mold.

Police and various government agencies spent the next week investigating the accident. According to a factory spokesperson, JinBao reached a settlement with the worker’s family, and full production in the factory resumed. “When they called me into work the next day, the machines and the cloth chute had been cleaned,” Mo told me. “But the smell was still there. The whole building had a horrible stench—it smelled like dead fish.” He tried to quit, he told me, but claimed the factory said it would withhold his pay. “There are not enough workers,” Mo said the foreman told him.

“I couldn’t eat,” Mo recalled. “I lost all my appetite and energy. I couldn’t sleep. When I did sleep I had only dark dreams.”

In a week’s time, however, Li had found a replacement worker, and Mo was allowed to leave with his pay. He returned home to his wife and two children. 

After leaving JinBao, Mo began driving a cargo truck for Lucky Goose Express, hauling parcels en route to the doors of online shoppers. His hours were longer than at JinBao, but the pay was higher. Also, his wife moved to Dongguan to work in an electronics factory, and they rented a simple studio apartment together.

On occasion, Mo’s delivery route took him past JinBao. When I last saw him, he said Li was still sitting outside the factory gate recruiting new workers. I remembered the Chinese proverb the recruiter once told me, two years earlier, when I asked if the factory could continue to operate with such high worker turnover: The barracks are cast of iron, and soldiers flow through like water. “JinBao will always be here,” he explained. “Workers come and go.”

R. W. McMorrow is a former China-based Fulbright Scholar and is now a freelance writer

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