June 30, 2010 / 6:29 AM / 10 years ago

China labor strains reflect a countryside in flux

SOUTH MAQIAO VILLAGE, China (Reuters) - Ma Xiangqian’s house stands silent in a tree-shrouded village in central China, the inscription on its padlocked gate announcing the hopes for prosperity his family says drove him into the factory life that killed him.

The shy 19-year-old was among the first of a string of deaths this year at a vast Foxconn electronics complex of 400,000 workers in far southern China, that has cast a spotlight on the hard lives of the country’s 150 million migrant laborers.

Foxconn and police believe Ma, like nine other young workers after him, killed himself. Ma’s parents suspect he was killed.

The deaths have sparked an uproar about stressful conditions in the strictly-run complex and raised concerns about the damage to society from China’s rush into industrialization that is luring millions to quit rural life.

Foxconn says its treats its workers humanely and follows labor laws and regulations. Ma Xiangqian’s sister, Ma Liqun, who also worked at the company’s same big complex as him, said many workers resented what they said were long hours, a relentless pace on the production line, and harsh discipline.

Ma’s journey from his quiet village in Henan province to the humming industrial site, where he died on January 23, illustrates how the high expectations of China’s migrant workers in search of better wages can darken life in their rural homes.

“Loud and bright, this year will be better than the last,” says the traditional Lunar New Year couplet glued to the locked gate of Ma’s now empty home. “Living dragons and tigers, next year will be better than this.”

Ma took the job at Foxconnto help his family escape 60,000 yuan ($8,827) of debts from building the two-story house, meant to help him find a bride, said his family.

“In the countryside, no matter how hard up you are, you need to build a decent home so your son can get married,” said Ma’s father, Ma Zishan, speaking by phone from Guangdong where he and his wife continue to press police to look into their son’s death.

“You need a son to keep the family together and keep the farmland, but now he’s dead and I don’t know where to turn.”

Ma’s parents were already saddled with fines for having four children, double what family planning rules usually allow. Like other villagers, they looked to their children to find work and send remittances to help pay for new houses, motorbikes and TVs.

RISING ASPIRATIONS, RISING COST

Rising rural aspirations, and the rising cost, are part of the reason for the increasing discontent of China’s migrant workers, said Li Changping, a former rural official who won fame in China in 2000 by denouncing the economic burdens on farmers.

“These migrant worker kids carry expectations about building a home, getting married, having children, becoming successful, and there’s a real pressure from trying to keep up,” said Li, who now lives in Beijing, researching rural development.

Making a direct link between any particular death and these pressures was impossible, he said. “But, still, migrant workers certainly do feel the stress,” he added.

Like much of modern rural China, Ma’s home village is dominated by old people and children.

“Nearly all the young people go out to work,” said Ma Zibing, a grey-haired 62-year-old, sunning himself outside his home. Most in this clan-based village of about 400 share the Ma surname.

“Most head south to Guangdong, but they go all across the country. All that’s left here are old people and kids.”

The villagers make thousands of yuan a year by growing sapling, shrubs and flowers that are then sold to urban markets.

This relatively lucrative farming niche is not enough for the young. They prefer to join the army of rural migrants, toiling on road works, building sites and production lines.

With nearly 100 million residents, close to 70 percent of them rural, Henan province is a vast source of migrants.

“You need to do it to make real money,” said Ma Wenfang, a 21-year-old woman, who said she had come back to the village to marry after working at a factory in south China.

NOBODY FARMS

She saw no future in farming.

“Nobody our age farms anymore,” she said with an amused snort. “Nobody my age could plant a stalk.”

The torrent of cheap workers, most with a basic education, has helped make China a global base for manufacturing.

It has also brought change to villages such as South Maqiao. Two-story homes of brick and tile are displacing one-story mud-brick dwellings. Motorbikes and electric scooters outnumber bicycles. Farmers tending their plots of shrubs interrupt conversations to answer cell phones.

Ma’s first name, Xiangqian, means to “move forward.” As the sole son among four children he carried the hopes of his parents to find a foothold in this rising wealth. In rural China, boys are often seen as bearing the family line.

But achieving those hopes left a heavy financial burden on the family. The parents defied family planning rules by having four children — Ma Xiangqian was the youngest, with three sisters — rather than the two usually allowed.

They struggled with fines of 20,000 yuan ($2,928) imposed by village officials, said Ma Xiangqian’s mother, Gao Caoying.

“If you didn’t pay you’d be locked up. But the village chief too pity on us and let us pay a little bit at a time,” she said.

ATTRACTING SUITABLE BRIDE

They borrowed 60,000 yuan from kin and friends to help pay for the two-story house, which cost 80,000 yuan unfurnished, in the hope it would help their son attract a suitable bride.

“Everyone builds homes for their children whether they have the money or not. The big task in life is to have a good house for your son and his wife,” said Ma Jianfu, a fellow villager and cousin of the family. “But everyone depends on working away. If you don’t work away, you’re living standard won’t keep up.”

Ma Xiangqian quit junior secondary school to train as a cook. Then he turned his hopes to joining his older sisters in Guangdong, where they worked in factories.

After a stint in a garment factory, in November last year he joined his sister in the Foxconn complex, owned by Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, which make products under contract for Apple Inc, Dell and Hewlett-Packard among big electronics brands.

Other Foxconn workers who died in the recent rash of suicides also came from struggling rural backgrounds, according to profiles in Chinese newspapers and magazines.

“There’ll come a day when I give you a big house to live in so you can live a good life,” Lu Xin, a 24-year-old who jumped from a dormitory in May told his mother before his suicide, Phoenix Weekly, a Chinese magazine, reported this month.

Ma Xiangqian was bullied by supervisors who pushed him off production work to cleaning toilets, said his parents. His first full month’s wages at Foxconn amounted to 1,943 yuan.

Back in their home village, the saplings that once boosted the family income were dead and yellow from neglect and overgrown with weeds. Neighbors said they sympathized, but did not have the time to look after the neglected plot.

“Nobody has the time to help,” said Ma Shujian, an elderly neighbor. “We’re all too busy looking after ourselves.”

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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