In her book Factory Girls,
Leslie T. Chang unveils the true inner workings of China’s manufacturing boom and the female workers who make up the bulk of the labor force. A former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal
, Chang’s book credits the country’s 130 million migrant workers with building up China’s cities and keeping their factories running with the ability to churn out cheap consumer goods on a massive scale. These factors have resulted in China becoming the economic powerhouse that it is today, reshaping the way the economy functions worldwide.
Chang refers to China’s migrants, a seemingly endless supply of labor, as the largest migration in human history. This renewable workforce allows China to function at an unparalleled rate of production. Chang delves deeply into the stories of these women who drop out of school and leave home at a young age, heading south to one of China’s megacities of the Pearl River Delta in search of greater opportunities for themselves. She hails them as China’s invisible heroes, the ones that are rarely thought about but whose hard work and self-sacrifice provide the backbone of China’s economic success.
The factory girls are often driven by desperation to provide for themselves as well as their families. In spite of China’s relative conservatism, making it relatively rare for women to venture out on their own in a socially acceptable manner, once the girls reach the city, Chang found that parental concern tended to give way to words of encouragement and the desire to earn as much money as possible. Their rural towns offering very little in the way of a future, these girls are motivated by their own ambition and a sense of pride in having made it to the city. They are determined not to return from whence they came and to carve out a brighter future.
The narrative consists of the interwoven tales of Chang’s own touching family history in China alongside her investigation of the factories. The story focuses on the giant factory town of Dongguan, boasting a population that is 70 percent female and where the economy is rising at a rate of 15 percent every year. Chang describes the town as a place that seems devoid of any history, and where everything is in the process of evolving and becoming something else.
Chang’s descriptions of the factories offer a dystopian view of the monotonous assembly line environment, whereby each woman acts as a cog in the machine, doing her part to contribute to the final product. These women are assaulted with an array of harsh slogans from employers encouraging them to work harder and warning them that if they don’t, they will suffer and die poor.
The fear of bringing shame upon themselves and their families incites the girls to flock to factories where they work twelve-hour shifts for a salary of around one hundred dollars per month. These girls are not just working for the meager salary, but for what they see as the opportunity to escape from the shackles of their rural lives and eventually, through jumping from one job to the next and enrolling in night classes, find themselves entering a higher class. As Chang writes, it is all about self-improvement.
Employers are also guilty of open discrimination, often posting job ads that are very specific, excluding people from certain provinces, even stating that only children need apply. With such an extensive workforce available to them, employers are under no pressure to provide quality-working conditions and can afford to be picky in their hiring. However, with the steady demand for cheap goods from around the world and cities that are growing at unprecedented rates, there is no shortage of work. It is just as easy for any of the factory girls to move along and find a job elsewhere, many of them lying to employers and citing work experience they do not have in order to set themselves apart from others. In Dongguan, it is taught that being too honest will impede one’s success and that lying is a necessary component of getting ahead in life.
Chang writes that at the rate that things are changing in the country it is impossible to anticipate the fallout of all of this. She notes that the competitive mood creates a frenzy that seems to disorient the workers, to the point that they are unsure of what they are working for. In spite of earning money and collecting goods, they don’t seem to be leading increasingly happy lives; they find themselves at a loss as to how to interpret this. Still, the women forge ahead, aware that they have only themselves to depend on. Through Factory Girls
, Chang seeks to slow the dizzying pace at least for a moment and to highlight the individual girls, bringing some humanity to the situation.