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

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today