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.