Migrant workers hoping to get rich find wealth gap keeps them apart

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2011, 12:00am


Migrant worker Li Hua walked out of the internet bar at around 10.30am, yawning. For the 22-year-old from Dazhou in Sichuan it was just the start of another normal day in Guangdong's Dadun village, where he has worked for a year sewing waistbands into jeans.

Dadun is part of Xintang township - in the Guangzhou satellite city of Zengcheng - once known as the blue jeans capital of the world.

It still produces more than 200 million denim garments a year. Li, working from early in the afternoon to late at night and with five years' experience, can sew 200 waistbands an hour, making 13 fen (15 HK cents) for each pair of jeans he finishes.

As long as the overseas orders keep coming in, making a living in the Pearl River Delta is not a problem for second-generation migrant workers like Li. In the past few years, their monthly income has doubled, from about 1,000 yuan to more than 2,000.

But the younger generation wants more. 'I'm learning how to become a businessman, following the model of other factory owners who used to be workers,' Li said. 'For workers of my age, happiness means being rich.'

Li's boss, also from Sichuan, rented a three-storey building in Dadun five years ago. The first floor is the workshop and the second and third floors are dormitories for the workers, five to six of them living in each 30 square metre room. The rooms are a mess, with clothes, shoes and personal items scattered over the floor. Li says that sometimes he prefers to stay at the internet bar the whole night.

He says living conditions in the industrial zone are much better than his hometown but still far from comfortable. In summer, there is an almost unbearable smell from the rotten fruit, burning plastic and rubbish which can be seen everywhere.

But Li says this is fine with him. He worked in Foshan for four years before coming to Dadun last year. His parents, in their 40s, have been working in Xintang for more than five years.

He said his parents, typical of the older generation, did not think poor migrant workers could afford to stay in big cities and had just one aim in mind - going home. But he said he would be willing to leave Dadun tomorrow if a better opportunity came up elsewhere.

'I have no clear plan for the future so there is only one thing I care about: money,' he said. 'I really do not care where I stay. Once there is a better chance to make more money, I'll go.'

Dadun's factories have attracted many villagers from inland provinces seeking new lives. Local people and migrant workers estimate there are only 7,000 permanent villagers but 40,000 to 60,000 migrant workers. Li and many other migrants said there had been a lack of true communication between the two groups. Instead, the migrants had long felt discriminated against by the richer locals, who blamed them for crime and other social ills.

That mistrust and alienation flared into Guangzhou's worst rioting in decades last month. After a 20-year-old pregnant woman and her husband, both from Sichuan, were beaten up by Dadun security guards, tens of thousands of migrant workers demonstrated on the main streets of Xintang.

For three days, the workers stayed indoors during the day, and at night smashed cars with local licence plates and set fire to local government buildings. It took half of Guangzhou's police force, with anti-riot police and soldiers, to impose a curfew.

Sun Linsheng, 30, a migrant worker who came to Dadun from his village in Ganzhou, Jiangxi, 12 years ago, said: 'We seldom met local people, who all live outside the industrial zone, and we do not care for each other. After living here for so long, I never had the idea that I belonged.'

But there is at least one thing Sun and Li's generations have in common - neither of them think migrant workers can integrate with local people if they are poor, saying the biggest gap between the two groups might not be down to language, lifestyles or cultural identity but income.