Monday, March 02, 2009

Songs champion the cause of China's rural poor

(Above: migrant workers appeal for help - their slogans, written on sheets of newspaper read Wo yao hui jia or I want to go home.)
The rise and rise of China has depended to a large extent on a vast reservoir of cheap human labour: the peasantry.

Men and women, girls and boys from Anhui, Hebei, Henan and other rural provinces have come to the big coastal cities in droves since the mid-eighties. Like a blind flood, rural workers who had only known their local village became restless nomads following rumours of work on building sites, in manufacturing and in domestic service.

The market in human labour power was the condition for capital accumulation on a vast scale.

All of the ugly prejudices against the poor that Mao had tried so hard to eradicate, particularly during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, resurfaced as senior Party leaders fell in behind Deng Xiaoping and his exhortation, “It is glorious to get rich!”

Deng gave a green light to the restoration of capitalist practices with another slogan: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”.

The colour of the cat, if you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor, was always a red herring: the real question was “for whom?”. For the use of the workers and the peasants, or for the private expropriation by, and enrichment of, an emerging capitalist class…that is the question.

The treatment of the mangliu, the migrant workers, has been scandalous.

As of 2006, the total amount of unpaid wages owed to migrant workers in mainland China amounted to 10 billion yuan. Unpaid wages in the construction industry amounted to 72.2% of the total.

New land laws have removed the one safety net that existed for most of these migrant labourers – the farms that they had walked away from in search of cash payments in the city.

In order to satisfy the demand for land for manufacturing expansion, a Chinese-style of enclosures has been visited on some villages with compensation rarely meeting the needs of farmers for relocation and rebuilding of homes.

A new form of land leasing, or renting, is now leading many peasants to sign away their rights to land so that returning migrant workers, laid off from the big factories and job sites, have no farmland to fall back on for sustenance farming.

It is estimated that 20 million rural workers have been dismissed from factories that have been faced with a crisis of overproduction following the disappearance of finance capital from world markets and the evaporation of credit that has substituted for the immediate realisation of surplus value through the sale of commodities.

Two songs have recently commented on the plight of the migrant labourers. One can be seen in a video clip here, whilst the second can be seen by following the link further down the same page (you can ignore the instructions to install a language pack)
The lyrics of the first read:

Cuihua (his wife’s name), mom and dad, I won’t go back home for the Spring Festival,
Without wages in my pocket, I cannot face you all
Son and daughter, don’t ask me where the red envelopes are
I cry to the heaven and to the earth but where can I complain?
Why does the boss himself have a luxurious life but no money to pay the wages?
He has no reason to be so proud even when he drives a BMW or Mercedes because that’s what he owes us.

Repay my wages, Repay my wages

We are thousands of miles from home
We work so hard in the cities
We are from Shaanxi, Shandong, Sichuan, Hubei and Anhui
We build the high-rise buildings but we are ironically looked down on
We are not paid and there is nothing we can do about it.
I ask myself whether there is any justice and I calm myself down
I persuade myself that I am the creditor and that’s no doubt

You owe me, You owe me…

The lyrics of the second follow:

I had a hard life in the mountain area
I needed to wait for my hen to lay eggs in exchange for cigarettes
One day I left the mountain with my uncle
I worked very hard in the construction site and earned six thousand yuan within a year
I was waiting for the pay and planned to spend the Spring Festival with my family
However, the boss said he was out of money and let me wait
After the third snow, the boss still didn’t pay me

He said he had no money to pay but he spent several thousand yuan to play Mahjong
He said he had no money to pay but he spent ten thousand yuan to get his mistress a new cell phone

People in the labor department were very warmhearted and they kept calling the boss until he powered off the cell phone
The boss said he was very angry because we sued him and he even threatened us
The Labor Department let me report it to the court
The court said it would process the case for us after New Year
We waited till then and the court did process the case
But the boss had run away with our wages
He said he had no money to pay but he spent several thousand yuan to play Mahjong
He said he had no money to pay but he spent ten thousand yuan to get his second mistress a necklace

The visuals associated with both sets of lyrics depict the cruel life and times of the migrant labourers.
At the end of the second song, the singer wields a large sword and leaves no doubt about what he would do with the laoban, or boss, should he ever catch him.

Two recent Beijing Review articles on this topic are also worth reading:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the use of the description "migrant" workers appears to be not wise and misleading , as if the working class itself is divided on the basis of geography and licenced by original residence and could simply choose to simply
migrate back to the rural areas.

Like as if they were disposeable temporary 'ilegal" immigrants to america not having the same entitlements as "official"
city resident workers.

They are capitalisms 'reserve army of labour" an integral part of the Chinese working class.