Migrant workers

It's not easy for a migrant worker in the legislature

Migrant worker representative Hu Xiaoyan

If a migrant worker goes into government, is she still a migrant worker?

That's the question posed by the story of Hu Xiaoyan. Hu became an instant celebrity this year when she attended the National People's Congress sessions as one of three new "migrant worker representatives." She represents Guangdong, having moved to the city of Foshan from her home in Sichuan in search of work. Here's how Danwei summarized Chinese news reports back in March:

Although it is not clear what improvement there is going to be for migrant workers, the social status of Ms Hu was greatly improved: Back home in Foshan, Guangdong Province after the NPC, she was warmly welcomed by her factory bosses , and now has her own office. She is going to have her own website to communicate with people too. Inspired by Premier Wen's question to her "Do you want to go into politics?" she told the media that she would like to commit herself to the interests of migrant workers. This is not going to be easy as she has already been criticized for being timid about expressing the grievances of her underprivileged constituency.

Being "timid" was the gentlest criticism leveled at her. In the weeks after the NPC sessions, she was accused of being opportunistic, self-promoting, and worst of all, out of touch with the migrant workers she was supposed to represent. Her phone number was published in the media, but it was unreachable: callers were greeted only with an advertisement for her company.

Why did she turn off her phone? And how has she managed her NPC duties over the past few months? The current affairs magazine Window of the South* recently caught up with Hu in two separate interviews at the factory where she works. She reveals that she stopped answering her phone once it became clear that people with genuine problems were in the minority; most of the phone calls and SMSs were from people who simply wanted to hurl abuse at her.

Hu also describes how she is trying to juggle her work, home, and NPC responsibilities, while staying close to the migrant workers she's supposed to represent. The reporter closes with a nod to the ongoing debate over whether the NPC should be professionalized. If representatives worked full time in the service of the legislature, they'd be able to visit all segments of their constituency, but they'd no longer be working along side them. That's possibly a fair trade-off, but Hu Xiaoyan's angry callers might not be so easy to convince.

Hu Xiaoyan: Job Troubles For a Migrant Worker Representative

by Zhen Jinghui / WS

On 21 January of this year, Hu Xiaoyan was elected to be the first "migrant worker NPC representative." Her mobile phone number and QQ account were published in the media after the legislative sessions, and from then on the public's suspicions about her began to rise.

In the many reports and opinion pieces published over the course of three or four months, Hu Xiaoyan, an assistant foreman in the finishing workshop at Foshan Sanshui NewPearl Ceramics Industrial Co. Ltd., was described as someone good at "showing off": after she became an NPC representative, she left the factory floor and moved into a private office; her salary shot up; she had set her sights on working in politics in the future....and at the same time she was enjoying these material benefits, her mobile phone was unreachable on the very day its number was publicized, its connection tone changed to a commercial for her company, and no one was able to reach her by QQ either....

Unexpectedly, when this reporter connected with her supposedly "unreachable" mobile phone, Hu, though not exactly friendly, was not off-putting either. We arranged to meet at her factory, with a reporter from another media outlet in attendance as well.

We did not see the "private office" we had imagined. The office of the NewPearl finishing workshop had a huge table that could sit 20 people, and from the number of chairs and shelves, it looked like at least ten people shared the room. Hu's colleagues knew that this was her so-called "private office."

"Take a seat." The table was quite wide, and Hu subconsciously chose to sit on the opposite side to distance herself from the reporters. In the slightly dim light, it was hard to see her subtle changes of expression.

Unexpected disclosure

The atmosphere of the interview was not at all relaxed. Hu Xiaoyan chose her words carefully, hardly uttering a superfluous sentence. The interview proceeded along a strict question-answer formula. And whenever one of the reporters present let slip the slightest note of doubt, she immediately stopped whatever she was saying.

"What was wrong with your phone? In March and April everyone said you weren't answering it, and to arrange this interview, we had to call a lot of times before you answered," my colleague led off.

"It was either reporters or migrant workers who were calling. In a drawer, I've got a stack of reporters' business cards this big." Hu made an exaggerated gesture. "Every day I had meetings and I had to work in the factory. I can't answer the phone when I'm that busy. You said March and April? My phone was ringing 24 hours a day back then. I had more than a thousand unanswered calls every day. How was I supposed to pick up the phone?"

"Didn't you expect that to happen when you gave out your phone number?"

"I didn't voluntarily give out my phone or QQ number." She hurriedly cut off the reporter's question.

On 19 March, the NewPearl Group's Sanshui factory held a ceremony to welcome Hu when she returned from Beijing. There were a number of reporters in attendance, and a company leader noted, "If need be, we will consider arranging an office for Hu Xiaoyan to handle NPC business," whereupon the reporters at the ceremony immediately speculated: if Hu Xiaoyan gets a private office, how will she be in the same ranks as the migrant workers? One reporter asked, "As an NPC representative who is a migrant worker, what channels will you use to communicate with migrant workers?" Hu replied, "In addition to surveys, my mobile phone and QQ will be communication tools."

"I don't know what they took that to mean. But since my phone number is my own personal information, they should have at least told me before they publicized it! No one even asked me, so I was utterly unprepared for it." Hu's feelings about the events of 20 March are still acute.

That morning at 3:00am she was asleep in her dormitory. Her husband had just returned after getting off work. Suddenly, the sound of her phone ringing pierced her ears and, groggy with sleep, Hu cut off the call. Another call from an unknown number followed close behind — the phone kept ringing until daylight.

When she got up that morning, the calls were still coming in. She had to recharge her phone four times that day in order to keep it on. At around 9:00am, a colleague told her, "Your phone and QQ numbers were released in the media."

That afternoon, Hu tried to go on QQ, but between 3:00 and 6:00 that afternoon, more than 4,000 people tried to friend her, crashing the program and preventing her from logging in.

"It's not that I wasn't answering migrant worker's calls: I wasn't answering anyone's calls back then. It was impossible for me to work or live normally." To prove this, Hu showed us her two mobile phones: "I couldn't answer calls from the factory leaders, so they had to get me another phone for internal communication so work wouldn't be affected."

Personal attacks

"Were all those phone calls and SMSs reports of problems?"

"No. Only a small number were about problems. Most of them were cursing at me."

"Why were they cursing at you?"

"I don't know."

"What were they saying — were they cursing you for not answering your phone?"

"No. They were really filthy....basically, they were cursing me for 'showing off'."

At the end of March, at the same time Hu's phone and QQ numbers were made public, newspapers and websites ran lots of negative reports about her. Evidently, while the worlds of politics and academia were cautiously optimistic about the birth of the first "migrant worker NPC representatives," media reports whipped up a credibility crisis for the representatives among migrant workers: did a factory foreman who made more than 3,000 yuan a month count as a migrant worker? How could a representative who had a "private office" know the troubles and cares of the migrant worker population? Were 120 million migrant workers merely "stepping stones" along someone else's road into politics?

"Those reports were all untrue. The private office was just one leader's idea, but it wasn't carried out. I have always worked in this office, shared among 17 people. After I became an NPC representative, my salary did not change. Two years ago when I became chief inspector my salary was already over 2,000, and when I became foreman it rose to more than 3,000, where it still is today. As for that stuff about 'wanting to go into politics,' I never said any of it."

However, the migrant workers weren't convinced by any of these explanations. Hu's unreachable phone became, in their eyes, proof of all of their suppositions. The SMS sent to her phone became more and more choked with filthy language.

"This one, for example: 'Did you make more than 3,000 by being a hooker? How much do you charge for a night?'" With difficulty, and after lengthy hesitation, Hu came up with this example. "And this wasn't the dirtiest. There were others even worse, that I can't even say." An ordinary working woman just a few months before, now suddenly subject to such galling filth — it's hard for outsiders to imagine what sort of emotional assault she felt.

"At first I'd respond to them: I started looking for work in Guangdong in 1998, and when times were bad I was much worse off than them. Back then I forced myself to take on the heaviest work even while I was in pain from a c-section, and the monthly salary was only a few hundred yuan. I'm where I am today not because I'm an NPC representative, but because of ten years of study, improvement, and enduring step-by-step. Today, I'm still a working woman who relies completely on herself. Only people who don't understand the situation would worry that I'll move away from migrant workers." But her pleading had little effect.

Cautious actions

"Why didn't you clear yourself in the media?"

Hu shook her head: "One of the reporters there that day (19 March) offered to help me clear my name, but I said no." She did not provide a reason, but presumably she had lost faith in the media because of all that had happened. Even though it had been several months and she presented herself composed in front of us, her lack of faith had not substantially changed.

This reporter tried to ask about what the effect was of all this stress, and she led off with an example: "Several times the union came asking me to take part in external consulting events and TV programs. I thought that if I went, would they say I was 'showing off' again...."

Before she was finished, another reporter interrupted: "What other people say is their business. If you are afraid of what other people say, then what will you be able to do?" Hu immediately said, "I'm not afraid. They cursed me every day for four months. If I was afraid, I wouldn't have made it to today!" Seeing the reporter's satisfied nod, she seemed to relax.

After this interlude, the word "stress" seemed to be taboo. Regardless of how it was approached, she avoided talking about it. "I rarely think about this question. Stress becomes motivation." "When they curse me, I think about where I've made mistakes, and I'm no longer angry."

Hurt by the force of public opinion, Hu Xiaoyan has a habit of subconsciously protecting herself when talking to the media. When the supervision of public opinion is in conflict with her true feelings, she refuses to open up her mind and run the risk of new suspicions and injuries.

To lift the general mood, this reporter changed the subject: "What was your strongest feeling when you became an NPC representative?" To our surprise, she took two stapled sheets of A4 paper out of the cabinet. "I knew you'd ask this question, so I've already written it up. There's no need to discuss it." On this point she held to the notion that to talk much is to err much.

And with that, the first interview had to end after several awkward silences.

An isolated force preparing for battle

The second time I went to the NewPearl factory, Xu was a little surprised: "I've said everything I needed to. What else do you want to know?" This time it was a one-on-one meeting, and I pulled up a chair right next to her, telling her that I wanted to have a closer chat.

Removing the distance broke us out of the annoying question-answer format.

"I'm an ordinary person, too. How could I be free of stress? Why shouldn't I get angry?" When she said this, her expression sought understanding.

The explosion of 24-hour calls and SMSs was absolutely a war of harassment for this working woman who still had strenuous work to do every day. "If I didn't turn off the phone at night, I'd never get any sleep." And although most of the SMS was practically more than she could take, she still had to read it, because she was afraid of missing messages that reflected actual problems.

During that period, Hu had splitting headaches from the stress.

The provincial People's Congress representative for Sanshui once advised her: "You can turn it off temporarily, or change the number."

"But I worried that if I turned it off and then someone with a real problem was unable to reach me, that the misunderstanding would be even worse." A friend suggested that she use China Mobile's receptionist service to filter out some of the insulting messages and reduce her stress. Hu took the advice, but ran into swift condemnation: "I'm a migrant worker who can't make too many phone calls, and you're a migrant worker representative who has a secretary?" After reading such criticisms, she had to cancel the receptionist service.

"The pressure was unimaginable." At such a close distance, this reporter could see that her eyes had reddened.

"Did you ever think of giving up?"

"No. My hometown is pretty bad about valuing boys over girls. I have two sisters, and growing up we were always bullied. So I got a stubborn personality. The more difficult something is, the more I'll persist in doing it."

This unyielding personality supported Hu during the times of greatest stress, allowing her to emerge smiling. But her stubbornness also doubled her loneliness and stress during that period.

Hu's workshop was responsible for the products' final quality check, and she also had the responsibility for training low-level staff. Everyone had always liked her, because even after she was promoted to assistant foreman, she still liked to personally handle things, and often led all the workers in technical training. But when she had to reduce the number of times she worked on the factory floor due to too much stress, some of the staff found it hard to understand.

She never made any explanation for this. No matter how much abuse she heard, or how badly she slept, or how big of a headache she had, in front of others she still smiled as if nothing was the matter.

However, not complaining to anyone, and not clarifying things in the media meant that she closed the window to outside help and understanding.

Unidirectional understanding

So long as the enemy hasn't knocked you down, you must advance. Hu Xiaoyan knew that her enemy wasn't the migrant workers, it was people's lack of trust, and the obstacles to communication that lay between them.

"I enrolled in a correspondence course, so when I have time I usually go online to study. I don't know enough yet. If I don't recharge, then I can't help the migrant workers solve problems or take practical actions to eliminate misunderstandings."

Judging from the content of the calls and SMS messages, migrant workers were of two minds about Hu. One segment was extremely distrustful of her and hurled abuse with abandon. Another group treated her as a savior and hoped that she'd be able to solve all of their problems.

Communicating with the second group wasn't smooth sailing, either.

"What were the major problems the migrant workers reported?"

"Everything. They were mostly clustered around two issues: factories owing wages, and work units refusing to sign labor contracts. Around 30% of them were about the wage problem." Problems with wages and contracts should have been taken care of by the local labor union, but because migrant workers were mostly ignorant of how to protect their rights, the famous NPC representative Hu Xiaoyan became their last lifeline, and they'd look to her with problems great and small.

"The function of the NPC is to 'report' and 'supervise,' not to directly take part in administration. NPC representatives have the authority of their office, but no real power. I can't get directly involved in their disputes with factories. I can only direct them to consult appropriate agencies and departments to resolve their problems, or help them give feedback on their problems to various functional departments."

But many migrant workers did not understand. If their problems were easily solved then that was it, but if they did not arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, then they felt that Hu was not carrying out her "duties," and they'd call back and berate her.

"You can't blame them. Lots of migrant workers went to work in the cities right after high school, and they've never had the chance to study the law, much less understand the functions of all the different government departments. So I propose that the Contract Law be put into the middle school curriculum. Even if it's just one class period a week, they'll learn about the law and protecting their rights, and there wouldn't be these awkward situations." Despite her best efforts, "understanding" only exists in one direction between Hu and the migrant workers.

Her husband can support her, but he can't share any of her stress.

"He's got a quick temper. If he sees anyone insulting me, he gets more angry than I do."

One day around noon, Hu had yet another headache. She took two painkillers and passed her phone to her husband so he could recharge it, and then went to sleep. "When he was charging it, out of curiosity he looked at one SMS message. It was a filthy one cursing me out. He got furious and told me never to use that number again. It took me a long time before I got him to calm down." From then on, she didn't dare let her husband touch that "time bomb" of a mobile phone ever again. She would rather absorb the indignity alone.

"Did you ever cry from all the stress?"

"I never cried when they cursed me. But once, when my husband got angry because he couldn't take all the talk floating around, I had to hide in the next room over and cry. I thought to myself, why? No one understands no matter what I do." Hu's eyes glittered with tears under the lights, and she took a drink of water with her head bowed to hide her internal agitation.

How to represent

"You're feeling your way across the river, an isolated army preparing for battle. Why don't you ask senior representatives to instruct you. See if they have any strategies for combating these problems?"

Hu smiled at this: "I've asked. One old professor told me that he's often asked to do things beyond the scope of his powers. But our conditions and social stations are different. I find it hard to use his experiences as a reference. I've talked with the other two migrant worker representatives, and their circumstances are similar to mine. But their mobile phone numbers weren't given out, so their problems aren't as acute."

With no point of reference among her peers, Hu Xiaoyan can only continue to work using her own methods.

In the process, a conflict between her work, her NPC duties, and her life has gradually surfaced.

Since she's been a representative, she's had to go to Guangzhou for meetings and study sessions at irregular times every month. She goes to as many of the provincial PC's and labor union's survey events as she can. She can't neglect her correspondence course. Media interviews take up a substantial chunk of time....by comparison, she only gets two days off every month.

So squeezing the most out of her time is her first order of business.

At work, she uses break periods to reply to SMS messages. After work she takes quick meals in the dormitory and then sits right down in front of the computer to answer email. When she runs into problems she can't solve, she searches on the web or asks other people. "Once, I had events in the morning, afternoon, and evening in three different places. The next day I couldn't even crawl out of bed to go to work."

The week before the interview, Hu went with the Jiangmen People's Congress on a multi-day survey. The event was quite useful in collecting opinions and getting in touch with the people, but the cost in time and money was very high. "If the labor union or the People's Congress organizes it, then I'll go. But I can't go anywhere farther on my own to do surveys, because for one, I don't have the time, and second, I don't have the money."

A short while ago, some migrant workers from other areas sent letters and SMSs reporting on problems caused by the program to build a new socialist countryside. "Problems reported by a minority can usually only be passed up as feedback after they are confirmed through surveys. But I've been unable to conduct surveys so far. I'm not a full-time representative, after all, and I have to support my family."

"My job, my NPC duties, and my family responsibilities: these are all important, but I haven't been able to strike a perfect balance yet."

Hearing Hu sign, this reporter thought of the recent debate over the professionalization of People's Congress representatives: "Full-time representatives are not out of the question in the future. Perhaps that's the best way to resolve the problems you're facing right now."

Hu thought this over, then asked back with a wink, "Do you really think so? Don't forget that my problems aren't just money and time. Migrant workers are most worried about whether I'll divorce myself from the group. If People's Congress representatives are professionalized, then they'll inevitably have fewer chances for contact with the base levels. What will the migrant workers think? A 'migrant worker NPC representative' will have lost its meaning."

Hu sai that she still hasn't found the answer to the question of "how to better serve as an NPC representative," but she's not perturbed: "There are some issues that it's impossible to resolve now, so I won't worry myself about them. I'll try and do my best at the things I can do."

Note: 南风窗 is typically translated as "Southern Window." We've felt that this name gives the impression that it's a publication of the Southern Media Group instead of the Guangzhou Daily Group. In the past, Danwei has used "South Wind View" for the English title. This week we finally turned to the magazine itself to find what English name it prefers. The answer: "Window of the South," which is what we'll be using from now on.

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There are currently 11 Comments for It's not easy for a migrant worker in the legislature.

Comments on It's not easy for a migrant worker in the legislature

the very fact that china has a designated class of representatives for migrant workers is the best evidence of these workers' profound need for such representation.

i hesitate, however, to endorse this scheme not only because it seems more symbolic than substantive, but rather because the designation of a separate class of reps for migrant workers strikes me as a blatant ploy to tamp-down and weaken the pro-migrant advocacy (to the extent that any such advocacy exists) of reps from provinces with large out-bound populations.

Well done, Danwei and Joel on the excellent translation! I normally consider politicians, clergymen, journalists, and salesmen as lower life forms, but there are always exceptions!

Poor girl. Co-opted into irrelevance after her 15 minutes of fame.

It could be a formality, as well as a little step forward from government side.

"Migrant work" is a bad translation for "农民工". In Chinese, a 农民工 simply means a farmer-turned laborer. Migrant workers obvious include those working at offices, who have not worked farming and who are not a 农民工.

Other illogic Chinese words here:


What a great piece. It even got me to thinking of this issue in the American context where there is the idea(ridiculous to me) that Joe Biden is working class and Sara Palin is just a regular ole soccer mom.

Excellent article. It doesn't surprise me to learn that contracts and wages make up the bulk of problems, nor does it surprise me to learn that many migrant labourers are ignorant of the laws designed to regulate labour disputes.

Hu Xiaoyan's proposal, "that the Contract Law be put into the middle school curriculum" is a great idea that I hope the state will eventually endorse. As Hu syas, "Even if it's just one class period a week, they'll learn about the law and protecting their rights, and there wouldn't be these awkward situations."

It sounds like the job is too much for her, and that she is idealistic and a "model worker" of sorts. Despite her advocating for migrant workers having a better understanding of the law, she seems to have a somewhat weak grip of the true nature of the solutions to problems for many migrant workers. If she truly believes that migrant workers problems are going to be adequately addressed by working the proper legal channels - even if she only half-heartedly believes this - then gulp!

A true agitator for workers rights would NEVER have gotten the job, surely she must know this. Likewise, someone capable of being shrewd and a using less obvious channels wouldn't have ever been in the running. But looking at her picture, I can see a pretty young woman, a mother, someone earnest, reasonably bright (and better, not yet totally jaded) and hard-working but overwhelmed by much of the stuff around her and so easily used/manipulated by sharks and wolves. She's great for PR, but not much else, and I suspect that is just the way many want it. Of course she didn't know what she was walking into, poor thing. Now where have I seen that recently, hmmmm...

She isn't originally from Alaska, is she?

Dan- one might think I'm splitting hairs here, but Mrs. Palin is a Hockey Mom, not a Soccer Mom. You know, the dogs that wear lipstick (her words!). She makes Soccer Moms look like field mice.

you all have missed a BIG point: even if she has no pressure representating, she cannot achieve anything in the legislature. the npc has been a club of wealthy elites, one little girl simply has no say amongst huge vested interests, no damn way she can speak for the lower class in there, let alone draft a law. so its actually fortunate that the npc is a rubber-stamp, otherwise the extreme disproportionate representation would turn the country up-side-down.

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