Crystal Jimenez

Professor Wexler


December 13, 2016

Working Without A Wage: Chinese Laborers and Their Struggles

Sitting her in in Southern California, here in the Unites States, China couldn’t feel further away. However, the struggles faced by China’s working class are closely connected to those of us living in the U.S. As many people who live in the U.S. feel, the people who make up China’s working class are tired, frustrated, and ready to fight back for their rights and respect. Matt Sheehan’s article ,“A Day in the Life of a Muslim Chinese Migrant Family”, explores the particular struggles of a specific group of Chinese citizens but also shines a light on how the evolving landscape of China’s largest cities creates a revolving door for the poorest citizens, pushing them through repeating cycles of work without offering any opportunity for forward mobility.

At the start of the article Sheehan introduces the Mao family, made up of two parents and three children. The three children are Baolong, the fourteen-year-old son, Fang Fang, the nineteen-year-old daughter, and Yufang, a second daughter. They all, with the exception of Yufang, work together in this restaurant, which is “a family business through and through, funded by family savings and operated by everyone”(Sheehan). These long working hours leave little time for the family to go out and enjoy the fruits of their labors. They don’t have time to leave the restaurant to stroll around the city or visit with family or friends. They also don’t get time to shop or spend money and participate as consumers in China’s economy. Sheehan laments, “It’s a grueling schedule, with the only benefit being that no one has time to reflect on how grueling it is” (Sheehan). With all the work being dedicated to this business, what benefit lies ahead for this family? There is no hope for expansion, no savings, no free time, and nothing to pass down to the next generation.

Our most recent political race revolved around the economy of the U.S. The candidates harped constantly about “small business owners” who are the backbone of this country. Looking at China, it might be easy to transfer this train of thought onto the Mao’s. In fact, Sheehan explains, “A Silicon Valley denizen might describe the Mao family as ‘serial entrepreneurs’. They’ve opened and closed about half a dozen restaurants in different cities. The current location is their third in Beijing. The previous two were bulldozed to make way for new construction, and this one will almost certainly meet the same fate” (Sheehan). However, while the Mao’s toil daily in their small business, their prospects are not as bright as those who make their way into Silicon Valley. They, the Mao’s, understand that they will never have millions of dollars or luxuries beyond their imaginations. They know that they will work for the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, Sheehan explains the symbiotic relationship the Mao’s have with their consumer base. He writes, “The restaurant’s patrons are primarily men who work with their hands; construction crews, delivery men and self-employed mechanics” (Sheehan). The family makes a living off of feeding the same construction workers whose work continues to put the Mao’s out of business. The construction crews come into towns from rural areas, tear down buildings, and build up news ones. As they work, they move closet and closer the area where the Mao’s have set up their business and have no choice but to wait until the crews get there. They won’t leave for two reasons, the first being that no matter where they go, they already no it will only be a matter of time before the crews catch up, but the second being that they their business exists to serve these workers. They’ll go where the construction crews go because that is where the work it. At least until there is nowhere left to house their business. That is where the cycle ends for the Mao’s.

Pun Ngai and Xu Yi wrote the article “Legal Activism or Class Action? The Political Economy of the ‘No Boss’ and ‘No Labour Relationship’ in China’s Construction Industry”, which examines how the peasant working class has found themselves in China’s largest cities. They discuss the fact that, in the rural areas of China, workers are recruited to come work in the cities to construct new buildings. However, much like the Mao’s, who work without seeing any forward mobility, these workers do their jobs and later find that they will not be paid and nor do they have to be. Ngai and Yi explain, “Construction workers are well aware of the exploitative nature of the labour subcontracting system, because it often results in wage arrears and lack of compensation for bodily injury”(2). In their article the authors explain the “no boss” and “no labour relationship” as the culprit of the injustices these workers face. However, these two groups of workers, the Mao’s and the construction workers whom the Mao’s rely on, are both facing the reality that no matter how hard they work, they will not see a change in their lives.

This message is being echoed across the United States as well, proving that if we listen, we can appreciate that we are all close than we think.