Denim town finds uneasy peace

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2011, 12:00am


Xintang, the riot-torn Pearl River Delta town where a semblance of calm has been restored after a violent weekend, produces more than 200 million denim garments a year and was once billed as the 'Blue Jeans Capital of the World'.

Its main productive force, migrant workers mostly from the southwestern province of Sichuan, went on a rampage over the weekend in one of the most violent riots in Guangdong in years. Their resentment at discrimination by the authorities and locals is deep and remains palpable.

An influx of migrant workers from Sichuan began to arrive in Xintang, a town in Zengcheng - a satellite city of Guangzhou - in the early 1990s. Because it specialises in the production of denim garments the town could offer plenty of job opportunities to low-skilled workers from less-developed inland areas.

Xintang's denim hub reportedly produces 60 different foreign brands, accounting for about half the 450 million pairs of jeans sold in the United States each year. Young workers in factories who sew and dye denim garments can earn up to 3,000 yuan a month if they take on extra shifts, but the older ones who are stuck in small workshops process half-completed jeans for just half that amount.

Dadun village is one of the major denim manufacturing hubs in Xintang, with about 7,000 permanent residents and more than 60,000 migrant workers.

'About 60 per cent of Dadun's residents are from Sichuan and 30 per cent of them are from Hubei ,' said one 65-year-old man originally from Wuhan, Hubei's capital. 'Only a small percentage are local Guangdong people.

'Dadun is a cradle for all kinds of labour, except blind people. Everyone can find a job here. Whether you are old, mute, deaf or without an arm, there is always a place for you to sew buttons on jeans or cut threads.'

As Dadun recovers from four days of chaotic anti-government riots that saw offices and police stations besieged and wrecked and vehicles torched, its denim workshops near the Jiuyu Trade Centre are reopening one by one. Workers are gradually resuming their mundane lives in its factories, but many are still haunted by the violence of recent days.

Workers' fingers, dyed denim blue, are pointed at the security squad hired by Dadun's village government. It took over urban management and basic security for the small village because there were not enough police officers to go around.

A 52-year-old woman from Dazhou, in Sichuan, who arrived in Dadun in 1997, said she had become desensitised to the brutal beatings that happened in the village every day. 'When I first came, I was very scared to see migrant workers being beaten up and left half dead, but now I'm used to it,' she said.

The Hubei man, who had moved to Dadun to support his son's denim business, said the village security squad had shown little patience towards outsiders.

'Migrant workers and peasants are ignorant about urban rules and regulations, but there is really no need to punish people by beating them up when they break a rule or two,' he said. 'It's not like they have killed or stolen; we are all just trying to make a living here.

'Those security people are ruthless and have been barbaric for a very long time. No one has ever been able to control them.'

The Xintang riot started late on Friday after Wang Lianmei, a 20-year-old pregnant woman from Sichuan, was allegedly manhandled by security staff in front of a supermarket in Dadun. The security personnel were said to have tried to stop the woman peddling goods.

A 45-year-old man from Sichuan who specialises in putting buttons on jeans, earning 13 fen for every 10 pairs, said: 'From what we've heard, the security guard was demanding money from the vendor, but she only gave him 20 yuan, so she was beaten up. A young man of about 16 or 17 who happened to be passing by and tried to stop the guard was also beaten up severely.'

The incident stoked the simmering anger of Wang's fellow Sichuan men and women and resulted in days of rioting.

Dadun's security squad has previously been accused of abuse of power.

The Guangzhou Daily reported in June 2007 that the squad was charging residents 50 yuan for every motorcycle permit it issued. Motorcycles without Dadun permits are banned from entering the village, under the threat of 200 yuan fines.

Faced with rising prices and unstable incomes, many migrant workers complain that they are struggling to make ends meet.

The 52-year-old from Dazhou said she made 15 fen from cutting the loose threads of every pair of denim jeans she processed.

'At my best, I can handle about 300 pairs of jeans a day,' she said. 'That would earn me about 30 yuan a day, but foreign orders have been infrequent since April. We normally work from 6am until midnight whenever there are jeans to be processed.'

She said she earned about 450 yuan a month during the low season, but rent took more than half of that.

A heavy police presence finally contained the rioting in Xintang on its fourth day. But as the town counts its casualties, the damage bill and the number of people arrested, it remains to be seen whether locals and migrant workers will be able to put the deep-seated tensions that sparked the rioting behind them.