The "Nine Lives" of a Chinese Woman Migrant Worker: Ms. Zhang Tells Her Story

International Women's Day

8 March 2006

Today is International Women's Day. China Labour Bulletin recently interviewed a 21-year-old woman migrant worker, Ms Zhang, who worked at nine different factory jobs in four years because she was unable to endure the poor working conditions in each of the factories. In the last of these jobs, she suffered a serious hand injury as a result of the factory owner's negligence of workplace safety. The problems encountered by Ms Zhang are typical of those faced by millions of female migrant workers in China - indeed, her story serves as a microcosm of the daunting plight they commonly face. At the end of her account, Ms Zhang, who is now working in a service centre for workers in Guangdong, concludes that only by acquiring a thorough knowledge of the law will Chinese women workers be able effectively to protect their rights and interests at work.

Ms Zhang's Personal background

I left home and started working at the age of 15. That was in December 1998. The reason I did so was to be able to help my family. I have a lot of sisters and I am officially considered to be "outside the quota" [1]. My parents were fined when I was born. At the time I left home, my brother had reached the age when he was getting ready to set up his own family and needed money. I decided to start working a bit early to help my parents and brother financially. Actually, my grades in school weren't bad at all. If I'd gone to high school, I think I could have had a good chance of getting into a university. In the past four years, I've worked in nine different factories.

1st Job: Making flowers and Christmas trees

I came to Guangzhou through a professional recruiter for this industry. He charged 250 yuan [about US$30] as a middleman's fee or introduction fee. Being underage, I didn't have an identity card at the time, so he wanted another 50 yuan which he said was to be used to get me an ID card. Then, he said that I would need another certificate of some sort when I started working at the factory and he took another 50 yuan for that. In fact, he never applied for any kind of ID for me. He just took my money and left.
This factory made handicrafts and gift items. It has foreign money behind it. In the summer we made flowers and in the winter we made trees (Editor's note: artificial Christmas trees). We worked seven days a week. We only had three days off a year. We worked overtime every day until 10 pm in the evening. In the beginning I was assigned to the hardware department. The working conditions were terrible. Every day we worked on the stands for the Christmas trees. We polished the stands using a cloth dipped directly into thinner. After we wiped the stands, we sent them to the kilns to be fired. The workshop where we worked was always filled with smoke. It was so smoky you couldn't see very far. When you entered the room, your eyes would burn and tear, and you'd have difficulty breathing. The factory issued us a new pair of gloves and a face mask every week, but they weren't much use. This was really a dirty job and the mask would get dirty in no time and then you really couldn't wear it. The gloves would also be ruined in no time at all. I worked there for less than 30 days and earned more than 500 yuan. I lived in the factory dormitory. You couldn't get a day off at that factory. Only when there were no orders and no work could you take a long holiday and go home.

There was no such thing as maternity leave or marriage leave. If you got pregnant, you could only quit and go home. There was no union in this factory. This was a pretty big plant and it had branches in other places, I never heard anything about unions in those places, either. Later, the plant said it was looking for a statistician or counter. I applied for the job and took the examination. I did well on it. My score was the highest, so I worked as the statistician, and you could say the working conditions were a bit better.

I worked at that plant for about eight to nine months. I left there because I really had no choice. At that time when I was working as a statistician, the pay for that position was 1.80 yuan an hour. But they decided to pay the statistician who was hired after me only 1.70 yuan an hour. She didn't like that, so she used her [romantic] relationship with the head of the unit as a way to get back at me. Even if I'd wanted to keep working there, it wouldn't have worked out, so I left and went home.

At that time I never thought about taking any action, like suing the plant or making a report. I didn't think that it was unfair and that includes when I first started working in such a hazardous job. At that time, I just thought that working (in a factory) was like that. After I went home, I studied how to use the industrial sewing machine and I planned to work in a garment factory when I finished my course.

2nd Job: Making toys in a cottage factory in the countryside

When I left home again and went back to work, I went to Chenghai city in Guangdong province, but I couldn't find a job in a garment factory, so I took a job in a toy factory. This was a small factory set up by a local man. The factories there are really small. They were a kind of cottage industry carried out in someone's home and they normally only employed a few dozen people or fewer, sometimes less than 10 people working there. The factory was the kind with all three units under one roof: the factory, the warehouse and the dormitory all in one building. The first floor was where we worked, the second floor was the dormitory and the third floor was where the boss and his family lived. The conditions in the dormitory weren't really terrible. It was a big open dormitory with more than 10 women sleeping in the one room and all the men sleeping in another room and there were a lot of mosquitos. After working there a few days, one's face would be covered with mosquito bites. There were only two shower rooms and we had to go to the river to fetch water and we washed our clothes in the river. As for the work, we had to put the screws in with our hands, and our hands swelled up as a result and we got lots of blisters. I quit after just a few days.

3rd Job: Handicrafts Factory

Someone from my hometown introduced me and my two cousins (a younger female cousin and an older male cousin) to a job in a handicrafts factory. This factory was in the city of Chenghai and employed between 20 and 30 people. The factory was on the ground floor of a normal low rise building. A second story had been created above the factory and we slept there. Someone tall like me couldn't even stand up on that floor. In the summer, it was really hot there, and there was no air conditioner or even a fan. You simply couldn't sleep. They put up a simple partition to separate the men and women. The only way up or down was by a ladder. If someone on one side wanted to go down, they'd have to ask someone on the other side to bring the ladder over. There was only one toilet with a shower for everybody. We had to line up to use the shower when we finished work which was at about 11:30 pm every day.

This factory used the piece rate system, but I didn't understand how they calculated. Our wages never seemed to match the amount that we produced. We had to buy our own food. We worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. We worked there for about a month and then decided that it wasn't worth it. We only earned between 400-500 yuan a month and after deducting what we spent on food, we basically hadn't saved much money. One day my cousin was listening to the radio with the earpieces in her ears while she was resting. She was also a slow worker. The boss said to her that he didn't want her to work there anymore and that she could go. So the three of us, me and my two cousins, all decided we didn't want to work there.

But the boss's wife didn't want to let us go, and she said a lot of nice things to us and asked us to keep on working. But my older cousin thought that it wouldn't work out if we stayed, so we left anyway. The boss kept our IDs and wages. We didn't want to go to the Labour Dept but there was nothing we could do. We went to the Labour Dept and the official there told us that this was the practice in this area: If we quit after just one month, quit after the first month that is, we wouldn't get any wages. The only thing they could do was to help us get our IDs back. In the end, we didn't get any pay. Adding it all up, we didn't earn any money that month and we were out-of-pocket for all the money we spent on food.

4th Job: Toy Factory

After that I went to work in another privately owned toy factory in Chenghai City. This one was a little bigger than the second and third places that I'd worked and the conditions were a bit better. This factory employed more than 50 people. We worked eight hours a day, four hours in the morning and four in the afternoon. If there were orders-on-hand, we'd work another four hours in the evening. We never got a day off. We'd only get a break if there were no orders or the electricity went off. Once we had a small fire in the factory caused by the electrical wiring. We all ran out in a hurry but nothing happened. I pasted labels on the toys in that factory. The wages were determined by the production process, and the speed of the line. Some people could make as much as 1,000 yuan a month; others only got between 400 and 500 yuan. The conditions in the dormitory were also better than before. About 50 people or more all lived in a separate building, and you could cook your own food. This factory was privately owned and built by the boss himself, so he was more understanding and courteous to us. If you needed to go home, you could, and if someone from your family came to see you, they could stay in the dormitory. I worked in this factory for just three months. I'd learned how to use the industrial sewing machine, and I always wanted to work in a garment factory. I also wanted to earn more money, so I quit and went with someone who'd just arrived from my hometown to Dongguan to look for a job.

5th Job: VCD factory

When we got to Dongguan, we spent the first few days living in the train station and then the bus station. Later, we found my cousin and at night we snuck into her dormitory and stayed with her. We hadn't been able to find a job for days, and we were really feeling down. That factory didn't allow outsiders to stay in the dormitory, and we were afraid of getting my cousin in trouble, so we moved to the home of another person, also from our hometown. Although he was a good person, he was a man, so I didn't think that was it was such a good idea to stay even though he never did anything to me.

One evening I went to watch the movies that run all night. The next morning when I was eating breakfast, I discovered that I'd lost my wallet. I had to wait there until my cousin came to pay for my food. Law and order in that place was really bad. We took one of those unregistered mini-buses from Chenghai to Dongguan. We paid them a lot and then they dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. In the end, I didn't go to work in a garment factory. I got a job in an electronics factory that made VCDs. Two other girls that were with me decided not to go to work in a factory. They got jobs as attendants in a hotel.

This factory employed more than 200 people, most of whom were women. The first impression you got from this factory is that it was exceptionally clean. All the workers wore uniforms, and the workshops also were very clean. I worked in packaging in this plant. We were paid by the hour, 2.00 yuan an hour and 2.50 yuan for each hour of overtime. We didn't work overtime on weekends. It took me awhile to discover what was wrong with this place: I had nothing to do all day. I only earned between 200 and 300 yuan a month and from that they'd deduct 90 yuan for food, so in fact in a month, I'd only earn between 100 and 200 yuan. This factory also had a pension plan, and they took out 10 percent for that. You could get that money back when you left the factory. There were no industrial accidents in this plant. Men and women got the same pay for the same job. I worked in this factory for four to five months, then I left because I couldn't earn any money there. I had to forfeit a month's wages when I left. According to the company's rules, you must work a full year before quitting to get a full settlement of your wages. That's to say, you only have one chance every year to quit.

6th Job: Ceramics Factory

After I quit that job, I went to work in a ceramics handicrafts factory. The minimum monthly wage in this plant was 480 yuan. The overtime pay in the first three months was 1.00 yuan an hour. After you have worked for three months, you would get a pay rise. The amount of the rise depended on the department head's assessment. The workers were divided into three categories, A, B and C. ???' group was the highest and got a (daily) increase of eight yuan a day. ???' group earned 7.50 yuan and ???' group 7.00 yuan. The department head's assessment was based on your performance. We didn't really understand how she assessed us. If the worker was from the same area as the head, then she'd get a slightly higher rating. She gave me a ???' rating which was pretty good, because I finished a lot of work. If one didn't take any days off during the month, you could get 100 yuan in a bonus in addition to your monthly pay.

The factory provided two meals a day and didn't deduct anything for food. They also gave you 2.00 yuan a day for breakfast. We worked seven days a week. The best situation would be not working overtime on Sunday. If we had to work overtime, we worked five more hours, from 6 pm to 11:30 pm. We were supposed to start work at 8 am, but actually we had to meet at the athletic field for exercises and running at 7:30 am. Normally, we'd only exercise for about five minutes, and then we'd go to back to the workshop and start working. This factory had about 400 to 500 people working there, 60 percent of who were women. This plant had comparatively safe working conditions. In our unit, we packed flower moulds with clay and the job required some skill, so the manager treated our unit rather well and the pay was a bit higher.

Some units, like the painting unit for example, weren't much. They painted the flower moulds that we produced. This didn't require much skill and the pay was worse. For example, they had to take turns going to the toilet in that unit. They could only go to the toilet a half hour after they'd started working. The passes would be issued one by one for each production line, and if you didn't go when it was your turn, you would miss the chance and you'd have to wait until it came around to you again. You couldn't spend more than five minutes in the toilet each time; even when you had your period you'd only get five minutes. And you couldn't disrupt the flow of the production line by going to the toilet. At work, you had to sit properly. You weren't allowed to sit cross-legged. Those were the rules in that unit.

We didn't have such rules in our unit. There were a lot of people in that unit and the skill level was not very high. Ours was a technical unit, a higher skill level was required. If they were too strict with us, people would just leave. It took at least two weeks to train a new person so that they were able to produce something of decent quality. If you encountered unfair treatment, you'd just have to grin and bear it. Nobody goes to the Labour Bureau.

7th Job: Clothing factory in Beijing

When I left the ceramics factory, I went home for a while. After that, I went to work in a clothing factory in Beijing. The plant was called Jiushan Garment Factory. It was in Miyun County, a district of Greater Beijing. The owner of the plant was from Anhui province and there were about 100 people working there. We worked nine-hour shifts and overtime work in the evenings was optional, but we never got a day off.

They calculated wages using the piece method there. The minimum wage was 380 a month and they didn't count hours worked overtime as overtime, so there was no separate overtime pay. The conditions in this plant were really terrible, worse than any plant in Dongguan. There was only one shower room and no one was assigned to do the cleaning, so it really stank. We were put up in a one-storey building with seven to eight people to a room.

At that time, the factory was three months behind in paying wages. I had been there for just a month, so this didn't really affect me. But then one day I had a run-in with the supervisor, and on the same day, I wanted to go out to make a call home in the afternoon. That factory is in a village far from anywhere and you have to walk a long way to find a telephone. I wanted to call home because I'd been away for quite a while without contacting them. But the supervisor wouldn't let me go until I'd finished everything. We only said a few sentences to each other. We didn't say much. She said, "You're spending too much time on yourself." I said, "If you're not satisfied with me, then you can give me an exit slip [to get out of the factory] and I'll go."

It was just at that time that the other workers were asking the boss for their back pay. They'd already talked to the boss many times but got nowhere. Then, they said that if they weren't paid, they'd quit. The plant manager threw a fit and said he wasn't going to pay anyone. The assistant plant manager was a woman and she was more polite. After she came in, she said that the plant manager had been kidnapped a few days ago and had spent a lot of money and had nothing in hand right now. If the staff didn't have any money for meals, the factory could help out. Later, we were all given between 30 and 50 yuan. She said that they had an order for some cotton garments that was quite urgent and if we could get this order out first, then she'd see if we could be paid right after that.

We worked on that order for two days and they still didn't pay us. I talked to the boss myself many times. I always believed that we should use peaceful means to resolve our problems. But in fact, it was because I was new and I didn't have much in the way of back wages owed to me. It was also because my Mandarin was better than theirs. The boss later wrote us a note saying that he was having a financial crisis. He also said that he would pay us in the future within a specified period of time.

But we heard some news about the boss, the meaning of which was that we would have a hard time getting our wages. So we got the feeling that it was really hopeless to try to get our back pay from him. We tried again, asking the factory manager for our salary and he said that if we wanted to leave, we should leave now. He could say that because he knew that we hadn't been paid in a long time and that we had no money to leave. We didn't even have the bus fare to get to Beijing!

In the end we decided that we would leave, even without our pay, and we'd decide what to do when we got to Beijing. Usually, the factory locked the main gate to the compound. If someone wanted to go out to make a telephone call or to buy something to eat, they needed to get a permission slip from the boss. In the end, all of us united and left together.

We left in the evening. At that time there was only one guy watching the main gate. There was one guy who was working on our side of the plant and he'd stolen the key to the gate. After the gate was open, the guard couldn't hold us back. And that was how we all got away. At that time, we were really pleased with ourselves. We thought we had won some kind of victory. In fact, there were those in our group who had lost four months of wages. They all said I was lucky, because I had only lost one month's wages.

At that time, we didn't go to the Labour Bureau. At that time, really we didn't know anything about anything. You asked me why we needed a permission slip to get out the main gate. All factories have this kind of requirement. To leave the factory compound, you need a permission slip. They're afraid that you will take something out from the factory. If you wanted to leave, you'd also want to take your suitcase, or any kind of hand carried luggage and if you don't a permission slip, you wouldn't be allowed to take your suitcases. So you see, it was really difficult to leave on your own. After we got out, we all put our money together to buy bus tickets to Beijing. When I got to Beijing, I found my cousin and borrowed money from him to get home.

8th Job: Garment Factory in Shenzhen

I only stayed at home for one week and then I went to Shenzhen and started working in a factory called Hongcheng Garment Factory. This one was set up with Taiwan money. They made things for children. There were 600 people in that plant. The set-up was half assembly line and the other half was done by hand. I paid a deposit of 80 yuan when I started working at the plant. They said that it was to process my staff card, the factory license and some other documents. I was put on one of the industrial sewing machines, and it was really hard work.

We worked overtime every day and the earliest we would get off would be around 11 pm. Sometimes we would work until two or three in the morning, and we would have to go to work the next day as usual. We started at 7:30 am until 12 noon. They said that we had half an hour break for lunch and a rest, but in fact as soon as we finished eating, we would go back to work. There was no rest break. The best day was Sunday when we only had to work overtime until 9:30 pm. Really, we were exhausted. Some even fainted, because they were so tired.

There were some people who got their fingers caught in the needle of the sewing machine, because they were so tired. Afterwards, they couldn't say why their hands were near the needle and got caught in it. But in fact, it's because they were overtired and half asleep. There was always a meeting in the morning. Once a woman fainted suddenly in the middle of the morning meeting. We tried but we just couldn't rouse her. In the end, her husband, who worked in my section, carried her home and she took a day off to rest. No matter how much you needed to take a rest, if they wouldn't let you then you still had to come to work.

We worked on the piece rate method, and there was no overtime pay. But the wages were high. The minimum was about 800 yuan a month and the maximum could be as much as 2,000 yuan. But later they set the highest pay for staff at 1,800 yuan a month, because the section chiefs were getting 2,000 yuan.

The salary was good at this factory, but their system of fines was also pretty strict. We punched a time clock and they would dock one yuan for every minute you were late. They were always fining someone. If there was any problem with the quality of the work on the garments and they were returned to the factory, then we would get fined. If you talked back to the section head, you'd get fined. If the floor was dirty, you'd be fined.

There was one woman working there who was much older. Once the section chief told her to re-do something and she refused. In fact, you couldn't say that the way she'd sewn the garment was wrong, but if the section chief told you to do something. then you had better do it. So she was fined. After she was fined, she still wouldn't do it and quarreled with the section chief. So she was fined again! That month her fines totaled at least 600 yuan. Even so, in the end she still got about 1,000 yuan in wages that month.

The food in that factory was OK. They served a soup and three dishes at lunch and dinner, and the rice and the dishes tasted quite good. In the afternoon, they'd pass out fruit and there was a late night meal when we worked overtime. If we worked as late as 3 pm, there was another meal for us, so the canteen in this factory often made five meals a day. You would rarely find this in other factories. There were all kinds of things on offer at breakfast, but most people didn't get up for breakfast, because they were too tired. They just wanted to stay in bed. There were 20 people in one room and there weren't enough showers and toilets for everyone. In the evening, there was no hot water.

The workers weren't given any labour contracts at this factory. No one brought that up when we started working here. The longest holiday you could have was one month, and you could only have one big holiday a year of 20 days to one month. But most people had a hard time getting even a day off. If you didn't turn up for work, you'd get fined. And each fine was between 50 yuan and 100 yuan. We didn't get a day off on National Day or Labour Day. The best you could expect was that we wouldn't have to work overtime on Mid-Autumn Festival. There was no trade union in this factory and we never heard anything about laws on labour protection and we never had any training in labour protection.

I worked there for two months and then I quit. I was just too exhausted. The only other thing was that they changed my position several times in the first month. And they set my quota too high; I could never finish it, and I had to work overtime by myself. Sometimes I would work until three in the morning and I still couldn't finish it. I was really angry. According to the regulations in this factory, you had to work for at least three months before you could quit. So when I wanted to quit, they wouldn't let me. I found the section chief and told her and she OK'd it. So I went to look for the division chief and he refused to approve my leaving.

So I had to write a letter to the assistant general manager from Taiwan. At that time, my family had arranged for me to be engaged to someone, and I didn't want it. But I used this as an excuse to quit my job. In the letter, I said my family had arranged the marriage and that they had already received 2,000 yuan in gifts for the bride. I said that I didn't agree with this arrangement and I wanted to go home to put a stop to it. Marriage was one of the biggest events in one's life and it is forever. After I canceled the engagements, I would come back to work, because I needed to earn the 2,000 yuan to pay the people back.

The assistant general manager told me come to his office; he told me to come back at the end of the month and he would approve it. I was afraid that he wouldn't keep his word, so I asked him to the sign his name at the bottom of a letter I'd written. But later, his subordinate still didn't agree and wouldn't let me leave. There was nothing I could do. I just kept on working. When I first started working at that factory, I did a good job on the garments that I worked on, but later I didn't try so hard and they didn't want to keep me. In the end, they approved my request.

Our group was producing a kind of children's playpen. It sold very well, and there were good orders for it. Other factories couldn't seem to produce it, and in our factory it was only our division that could make them. So ours was the highest paid unit in the factory and that is also why it was difficult to leave that position. But it was really exhausting working in that factory, so they found it hard to get workers and a lot of people quit. Those who stayed were older or young men who couldn't find a job anywhere else. Someone had written on the wall of the toilet: "Girls should not be working at this factory." This plant was actually really cold-hearted. In 2003, during the SARS (flu-like epidemic) crisis, there was one guy who was running high fever and he went to the clinic to get a doctor's note to say so. But the factory still wouldn't give him sick leave, and they wouldn't let him come to work. Whatever it was that you wanted, they wouldn't allow it. In the end, the guy just left on his own.

9th Job: Another garment factory in Shenzhen

After I quit that job, I went immediately to a garment factory in Longgang District in Shenzhen, a place called New Horse Garment Factory. This plant was making well known designer clothing. I don't know who originally set up the plant. I think it was Hong Kong investors. I worked there for one year. I was a thread inspector, that is, the one who checks that there are no lose threads showing on the exterior of the garment.

The usual working hours were eight hour shifts with two hours of overtime on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If we worked overtime on the weekends, we would get double pay. This job paid by the hour, and I got 2.77 yuan per hour. The wages were paid one month in arrears. The minimum pay was 700 yuan a month. You got an extra 7.00 yuan for working the evening shift. After working for three months, the factory put you on the piece rate method. This factory also gave us medical insurance and work-related injury insurance??? Every month you had to pay 60-70 yuan toward that.

There were eight to 10 people in every room in the factory dormitory, but there was a balcony off each room. The factory often held fire drills and emergency training. There was a recreation room in the factory where you could play ball or watch movies. After three months, I switched to another type of job. I worked in the spraying section. The spraying is done to improve the quality of the material. The others were not pleased, but I had studied dressmaking and I worked hard, so the other women couldn't say much.

This division worked the night shift and it was on the piece rate basis. Then the rate was cut by 40 percent. Originally, the pay was about 1,700 yuan, but later it fell to 1,000 yuan. That was because the number of garments sent to the night shift fell on average. If you wanted to earn more, then everyone had to compete with each other and grab more garments to work on. At that time, the biggest complaint was that we didn't get equal pay for equal work. The job was the same, only the order was different, so the wages were different.

Later, I was transferred to the pressing department. At that time, there were too many orders and there weren't enough machines. So they rented a machine that was made in China. It wasn't really safe to use. It was always breaking down. But the factory had assigned me to that one and there was nothing I could do. That machine had a shield or guard, but a screw was loose and the shield often fell off. The electrician had a look at it and said that it could be still be used, but you just had to be careful. Afterwards, I didn't pay too much attention to that. If it could be used, then I used it. After the supervisor discovered this problem, he told me that if the shield fell off again, we wouldn't use it anymore.

On March 25, 2004, I was working the night shift and the shield fell off several times, so I stopped using it. At about 3 am, the accident happened. My hand was caught by the iron roller. Someone who was there at the time saw what happened and thought that the machine had jammed and turned off the machine. But my hand was still inside and I couldn't get it out. No one there knew what to do, but they called the electrician. The electrician was sleeping and didn't come for another six minutes. When the electrician released the pressure of the machine, then I got my hand out. The skin on my hand was already badly burnt by the time I got my hand out. The security man called for a factory car to take me to the hospital, but they couldn't find a driver. It was another half hour before they called a taxi and I went to the hospital by myself. Nobody went with me.

I was in the hospital for 21 days. I had surgery to transplant skin to my hand because the original skin on my hand was already dead. While I was in the hospital, I asked the factory several times before they provided me with money to pay for the treatment. In the factory they started rumours about me, saying that I had no sense of security or safety. In fact, it was the electrician and the supervisor that said there was no danger and let me take off the shield, otherwise how could I have taken off the shield? The factory didn't send anybody to the hospital to see me or stay with me when I was having surgery on my hand. Afterwards, I asked them several times if they couldn't let one of the workers from the factory stay with me for a few days, and finally they agreed.

While I was in the hospital, the factory only gave us about 100 yuan for food. We were afraid that we wouldn't have enough money, so we didn't eat the hospital meals. My cousin made something every day and brought it to the hospital for me to eat. I hadn't fully recovered yet, but the factory stopped paying the hospital bills and the hospital discontinued the injections. Later, the hospital said I had already recovered and said that I didn't need the injections anymore, even though we had paid for the treatment. If they hadn't stopped the treatment in the middle, I would have recovered quicker and better.

About 10 days or so after I was released from the hospital, the factory started to push me to come back to work. I said that I wasn't completely recovered yet. The supervisor called me to come to the office and asked me to pick up a piece of paper. He asked me how did I eat and put on my clothes. I thought that he meant well and told him that I could do all these things by myself, that I didn't need anyone's help to do these things. Then, right away he asked why couldn't I come to work if I could eat and put on my clothes by myself?

At that time I really didn't expect him to talk to me like that, and I was really angry. The doctor had suggested that I have a second round of skin transplants on my hand, because my hand was not completely better. I was afraid at that time that this hand would be crippled or deformed later, so it was really a terrible time and I felt like jumping out of the window. When I was in the hospital, someone from a workers' service centre in Shenzhen came to interview me about this work injury. Then, I got the information about this service centre from someone in the hospital. I checked the address and went to see them when I was still recovering from the surgery. They gave me some help, but there was a limit to what they could do.

Later, I went to have the second round of surgery on my hand. I went alone again. At that time, I didn't know that the work-related injury insurance included transportation costs and meals. To save money, I took a long public bus ride to the hospital. The surgery was fairly successful. I have recovered almost completely the functioning of my hand. But when the weather is bad, the skin from the skin graft cracks easily. Maybe that's because it didn't recover completely the first time. The factory still has not paid me my wages and all the insurance money that they owe me.

Ms. Zhang's current situation

I'm now working in a service centre for workers. With all my working experience, I believe that what women workers need the most are the following: First, they need to know something about the law; second, when they have some knowledge of the law, only then can they protect their rights; third, only when they know how to protect their rights can they make progress, and only then can they improve their conditions.

In fact, the first step is difficult enough. You could say that most of those who are working in these types of jobs don't have any knowledge of the law and they have never thought that they have rights and they never tried to discover what their rights are. They think that going out into the working world is like that. While I was in between each of the nine jobs, I was effectively living on the street. We knew that the railway station would not kick us out, and that we could close our eyes for a while and rest there. When you quit the factory, you have to leave the factory. Before we went home, we went to those all-night movie theatres and waited there until dawn when we could get a bus home.

The Labour Bureau did nothing to help us or protect us. All the Labour Bureau thinks about is moving along any worker that comes into its offices. They are not paid well either, so the less they have to do, the better they like it. If they are not pressured to take up a case, they won't and that is one less case for them to handle. And of course there is the relationship between the factory owners and the people in the Labour Bureau. The owners will invite the Labour Bureau people for dinners and so on.

And there are problems with the present laws. Take maternity leave for women workers, for example. According to the regulations, a woman is entitled to antenatal leave of 15 days. This regulation is actually very bad for the health of those women from other parts of China who are working in the south. Suppose that they get on a bus 15 days before their due date? What if something happens on the way? What will they do? When the child is one month old, they have to go right back to work, and this is bad for the child that is nursing. Another common problem is painful period cramps. But right now, not one factory, including those with good working conditions, finds it possible to give those women any special attention.

[1] This is a reference to China's one-child per family policy. Apparently, Ms. Zhang was born without official authorization.
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