The women of China’s workforce

September 16, 2013

Shanghai, China

By Aly Song

Sometimes a good story comes naturally.

As a follow-up to China’s mighty urbanization policy, I gained access to a huge construction site within a new residential development zone some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Shanghai’s city center. My original plan was to photograph the lives of Chinese migrant workers at night. I imagined that they would probably go to some colorful places and do some interesting things after nightfall. But I was completely wrong – every day they went straight back to their dormitories, where they would eat, chat, play some poker, probably watch an outdoor movie once a month, and that’s it!

I was about to give up when I noticed that there were many women at the dormitories. I got curious so I asked other workers: “Your boss has no problem having wives living here too?” One of them replied: “They also work here at the construction site.” To be honest, I was very surprised because in my mind, construction work has always been a job for men.

From that moment, it was natural that I turned my camera to the female workers. I went up to them, introduced myself, and asked for their permission to document their lives for a couple of days. I was lucky that the women and their husbands were all very nice.

The female workers were mostly middle-aged, and they came to work here with their husbands or their friends from home. When they were younger, they had to stay at home to raise children themselves as their husbands were away working in cities. After the children grew to a certain age, they realized they could still go out and make more money. However, at their age, it was difficult to find jobs as waitresses or factory workers. Plus, some of them were worried about their husbands after long separations. Therefore, they ended up at construction sites, doing “light work” such as transporting sand, painting and cleaning, as they don’t have the expertise to do skilled work. Their salaries were the lowest in the industry (about 13-21 USD per day), only 50–70% of their male counterparts.

And each of them has a different story.

Zou Yunli, 38, from a village in Guizhou province, is a mother of two. She was a farmer all her life until six years ago, when she decided to leave her village to make more money for her children’s tuition fees. She first worked at a metal factory, but “the air pollution there was quite bad,” she said. “I didn’t feel quite well after working a few years.” Therefore, she left the factory and became a plasterer on this construction site. “The pay is similar (to the factory), but we have more freedom here, so I’m very happy,” she said as she smiled.

Ou Mei, 45, is from Anhui province. She met her husband, a construction worker, when she was 21. They got married and had a son, after which, she and her son stayed at home, and their bills were paid by her husband who migrated for work. Her son left home and also became a construction worker when he turned 16. She then joined her husband here, moving sand and cement, 30-40 carts a day. “This is better than farming at home, and I can save the money to get my son a wife.”

Zuo Xiaohong, 41, is from Chongqing. A few years ago, her house and land were acquired by the government to make way for a highway construction project. She and her husband had no choice but to find jobs elsewhere. She is planning to work for a few more years, then take the money home and build their new house, where her grandchildren will grow up.

Wei Shuqun, 43, from Sichuan, is a mother of two boys. She and her husband have been working outside their hometown for nearly 20 years to support the family. The two boys were raised by their grandparents. This year, the elder son was admitted to a university in Shandong, which made her so proud and happy. She said the sons were the only hope for the family, and she has to support them through university no matter how hard that is. “We brought the boys here this summer, asked them to experience the difficulties we have,” she said. “So I hope they can understand and seize their opportunities and change their lives through studying.”

These stories back up evidence that more and more women are leaving their homes, accounting for a slice of the mighty workforce of construction workers. In fact, a report by The Economist magazine stated that women in China represent 49 percent of the population and 46 percent of the labor force — a higher rate than in many countries in the West. According to a report by the International Labour Organization, around a third of Chinese migrant workers are women.

A survey done by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2006 also showed that nearly half of women migrant workers are not officially employed, but only working as “temporary staff”, with poor working conditions and less income than men. But none of these challenges stop them. Because according to my interviewees, the income from one man is no longer enough to support an entire family, so women need to make more money.

Every day, after a 12-hour shift, unlike the men, what the women want most is a nice shower. They have to line up to collect water with buckets because the running water will be cut later in the night. Yes, their jobs, their needs and even their lives could not be simpler, but no one can deny the fact that “women lift up half the sky” (a Chinese old saying) in this country.

Migrant workers give away their youth, their sweat and their blood to build the cities we live in. To me, they have always been the true unsung heroes of the fast-growing economy. I am willing to chant for them whenever I have a chance.

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