my commentary piece on the mental health of migrant workers in today’s SCMP

The grim reality of China’s migrant factory workers

Lijia Zhang says more urgent measures are needed to help desperate migrant factory workers avoid the severe depression and frustration that has taken a deadly toll

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 December, 2014, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 December, 2014, 7:47pm

Lijia Zhang

Shortly before midnight on September 30 this year, a 24-year-old worker named Xu Lizhi jumped to his death from the 17th floor of a Shenzhen residential building that belonged to his employer Foxconn. His death was the latest in a string of suicides beginning in 2010, when the giant electronics manufacturer gained worldwide notoriety with news that 18 of its workers had attempted suicide that year, with 14 deaths.

Xu Lizhi’s death sparked greater sadness and sympathy in me personally; being a former factory worker of many years with literary aspirations, I felt a spiritual connection with the boy when I read that he wasn’t just another migrant, but also a talented poet.

Like poet Sylvia Plath, Xu anticipated his own death. In his last poem entitled
On My Death Bed (translation here by possibly penned hours before he took his own life, he bid his farewell to the world.

I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light,

But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world.

was fine when I came, and fine when I left.

But Xu was evidently not "fine". The reports in the Chinese media revealed the young man’s struggle to break away from the assembly line and his frustration in failing to do so.

Xu’s tragedy once again highlights the worrying status of mental health among the migrant workers in China.

In July this year, Cheng Yu, a professor of public health at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, published a paper in the
Journal of Guangxi University for Nationalities about a research project he led on the mental health of migrant workers in the context of globalisation. The study found that 58.5 per cent of those surveyed suffered from depression, 17 per cent from anxiety and 4.6 per cent had considered suicide. Cheng and his colleagues interviewed 807 workers in the Shenzhen area, more than half of them under 30, and had in-depth conversations with 60 of them.

I am not surprised by the finding. For a novel about prostitution set in Shenzhen, I spent some time in the city interviewing sex workers, many of whom had worked in factories. The hardships on the production line, the drudgery of factory life, the low salary and loneliness drove them to the more lucrative sex trade.

Cheng’s paper focuses on the gap between the vast virtual world offered by the internet and smartphones and the migrant workers’ bleak and limited real-world choices. He describes this predicament as "real time travel". "The glaring gap between what an ideal life can be and the harsh reality of their own intensifies the anxiety and depression for some young migrant workers, the better educated ones in particular," says Cheng.

Xu came from a poor village in Guangdong. Having completed senior middle school, he joined Foxconn in February 2011, when the ripples caused by the spate of suicides were dying down. The monthly salary of 1,700 yuan (HK$2,150) seemed a fortune to him at first. But the changing shifts and repetitive and tedious work on the assembly line soon took its toll. He poured his bitterness in his poems.

I swallowed a moon made of iron,

They refer to it as a nail.

I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents.

Some of his poems were first published in his factory’s newspaper and then migrant literary journals. He even earned himself a reputation among migrant poets.

Most of these poets write while living in the city. After a few years, they go home and get married. Xu wished to take roots in Shenzhen, a city he felt he had a connection with.

In some ways, Xu is the modern Chinese version of Jude the Obscure, the hero in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, a stonemason who dreams of becoming a scholar. Xu’s failed path to success was as narrow as that of a working class lad in Victorian England.

The migrant workers are more or less chained to their production line, which Xu found stultifying. An avid reader, he tried to find a book-related job. He applied unsuccessfully for a job as a librarian at Foxconn, and later for a job with a bookstore, which also was denied him, possibly because of his status as a migrant.

hukou system – the household registration system that divides the population into two distinct categories of the urban and rural – makes things harder for the migrants, who don’t have the same access to job opportunities, health care and education as other city residents. They are often discriminated against in terms of salary and treatment.

The Chinese government recently announced a plan to relax control over the system in a bid to narrow the gap between rural and urban areas and to help migrants better assimilate into city life. But the process will be a long and slow one.

In the meantime, actions must be taken to address the mental health problems of migrant workers.

Professor Cheng urges the authorities to introduce compulsory mental health testing in factories, along with the annual health check which has been in place for some time. He recommends that employers provide workers with more time and opportunity to socialise so that they will not feel so lonely. And he calls on all factories to introduce the practice of "positive psychological intervention", involving setting up hotlines and counselling services.

After the spate of suicides, Foxconn, under pressure from all sides, has indeed introduced such a practice. This was certainly the right move. However, in light of the mountain of challenges migrant workers face, the measure alone can’t solve all the mental health problems. The workers’ struggle is likely to continue.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Breaking down





One thought on “my commentary piece on the mental health of migrant workers in today’s SCMP

  1. The plights of migrant workers in China are so overwhelming. It should really be up to these factories, due to enforced laws, to take care of their workers better. Bit by bit, I hope it is getting better. Reform of the hukou system in particular is long overdue.

    May I ask what came about of the novel you were researching for?

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