Former factory worker, and now author Zhang Lijia looks on her weblog into the fate of Xu Lizhi, a 24-year old Foxconn worker, who of many who jumped to death on September 20. Xu was not only a migrant worker, but also a poet, she tells us.
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.
China’s 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.
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