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Love on China’s Factory Floor

When Ying, 18, arrived in Shenzhen from Guangxi’s countryside to enter the 168-million migrant workforce that makes up China’s factory floor, she was the image of a migrant worker — of rural origin, young, hardworking, poorly-educated, low-paid, with no energy for out-of-work activities or socialising — and single.

But then she fell in love — with a colleague at work, also a migrant. They dated for a long time, talking for hours of things they had in common; she envisaged marriage just around the corner. She differed from the majority of migrant workers — not by falling in love, but because she had found love through her everyday life. Li Wang, a schoolteacher in an industrial area of Shenzhen, says: ”Ying’s love story is unusual. It is not easy or common for migrants to meet the right partner through their daily lives here. Many don’t find time to socialise, and also they move around a lot for employment, so they don’t manage to build lasting friendships. The lucky ones may be introduced to a good partner by good friends.”

But solutions do exist, especially market-based ones. And they are growing. With a potential multimillion customer base of migrants, many of them single and not socialising much, dating agencies are abundant. A 2015 case study by ilabour.net/, a research and news site on Chinese migrant work, found that two-thirds of Foxconn migrant worker interviewees are unmarried.

Many workers use Internet dating portals — such as jiayuan.com or baihe.com — the two market leaders in China, with 135 million and 80 million profiles respectively — or else the numerous local ones. When everyday life offers no normal space for dating, many go looking for love in the virtual world.

So-called dating games are also popular. On weekend afternoons, single workers meet in parks, where organisers have prepared seemingly harmless social games, with fees affordable even for the low-paid. In teams of two or larger groups, men and women meet basic challenges such as guiding one another blindfold through an obstacle course or passing sticks to each other by mouth. The games’ informal interaction and fun, and physical touching, greatly help the hesitant and shy. After the games, the men sit at tables and wait for the women to approach those who have made an impression on them by offering them flowers. The agencies’ websites promote the games, showing happy people having fun in beautiful outdoor surroundings — a stark contrast with the assembly lines and their iron discipline.

Excitement and relief

There are compelling stories of couples who met through the dating agencies, and fell in love and married. ”Rain Love”, 32, tells such a story on the online platform of Heart to Heart, a dating agency near Shenzhen that has been going for more than 10 years. Her story resembles many others; it’s full of excitement, gratitude, optimism, and relief. Others, like “Aggie”, 29, and “Fortune”, 38, post wedding photos, and are instantly congratulated by dozens of fellow dating-site users.

Genuine matchmaking, including profile screenings and consultancy work by the dating agencies, is often too expensive for low-paid migrant workers, and is mostly used by the better off. But sometimes factories organise dating events that are free for employees.

Though everyday life offers no space for dating, there are numerous possibilities on the Internet, or in the traditional way where parents make introductions; this is still widespread among migrants from rural areas. But dating (physical and virtual) requires energy. Many people are too exhausted to date or even socialise after a 12-hour shift. Ying had a hard time working 12-14 hour shifts in a factory. ”No matter how cold it was outside, I was always sweating. And always tired.” On every day off during her first three years in Shenzhen, she would sleep the whole day, too exhausted to go out for fun, or to make friends or date. ”Fatigue is a common reason for not dating. We meet people who haven’t dated for years because they have little time for an active social life,” Li Wang, a schoolteacher, said.

But young workers, especially women, can’t put their love life on hold: early marriage and children is strong in China. Ideally, you get married in your early 20s — if you aren’t married at 25, people start to wonder.

A study in May 2015 by the Social Survey Centre in China Youth Daily asked migrant workers to list their main worries. Current employment came first, love and marriage second (48%), followed by fatigue from overwork (38%). ”You are exhausted. But you have the pressure from cultural norms and the parents. It’s a potent mix. For some, especially women, it translates into troublesome self-pressure,” says Suet Wah Choi, chief coordinator of Chinese Women Workers Network (CWWN), recognised as an organisation since 1996.

The pressure is intensified by a changing notion of love, from the ”practical love” of earlier generations’ arranged marriages to the ”romantic love” of current generations of migrant workers: finding ideal love can be troublesome.

Ying’s early romance did not result in a “they lived happily ever after” ending. Her father found the boy’s hometown too far away from Ying’s, so she stopped seeing him. But her parents’ pressure increased, and before long she resumed dating. After a few failed dates, her aunt introduced her to her future husband, approved in advance by her father. After two months of daily phone conversations she quit her job in Shenzhen and went home to Guangxi to meet him. ”I was very impressed by the first sight of him. I could be in love with him,” Ying recalled. After two months of frequent dating they got married. She was then 24.

She could have said no. She had already said no a few times before to men pre-approved by her father. But sometimes it takes strong women to stand up to family pressure. And sometimes it takes strong men, too. Lao, 31, from rural Guangdong, who sells rear-view mirrors on commission in Shenzhen, met Jia-Li, a migrant worker from a neighbouring province, on a net dating site. He had a hard time convincing his future in-laws of his honest intentions in dating their daughter. ”Why is he so old and still not married, my mother-in-law kept asking,” he says. He prevailed in the end; they got married in January.

Married but living apart

Meeting Mr Right might be difficult for migrant workers due to the working conditions on the factory floor. But those same conditions might be just as challenging for keeping love alive and marriage working day to day. Many migrants have alternating day and night shifts, making it difficult for some couples living together actually to see each other, when one works 12-14-hour day shifts, and the other the same at night. It gets further complicated if their days off are not the same.

Many couples don’t live together. ”It is very common to be married and live apart from your partner. Probably around half the people we meet do so,” said Li Wang. Some couples live apart because they work in different cities. Others live in the same city but work in factories too far apart, making staying together impossible, while others simply find it too expensive to live in anything but factory accomodation. Communication is reduced to phone calls and text messages during weekdays and seeing each other on days off.

Ying and her husband live apart, working in different cities and rarely seeing each other. They communicate mainly by text messages. For Ying, it is about respect; their need for two incomes is secondary. After their marriage Ying agreed to stay at her husband’s home to cook and wash for her in-laws and help them with the farming, while he was out working. But she was treated badly, so she left for Shenzhen to earn her own income. She found work in Foxconn, where she has now been working for a year. ”I am getting financially independent and feels more equal when talking to my husband. But it was not an easy decision, I regret it for my daughter,” Ying says. She left her 7-month daughter with her parents before she left for Shenzhen. Later on, her mother-in-law and husband’s sister-in-law looked after her daughter. ”She’s like a piece of luggage, transferred from here to there.” She misses her daughter: ”I call her every week but she just listens without saying anything.”

According to UNICEF, the UN body for children, China had 29 million children in rural areas in the care of others than their parents in 2010. In total, 61million children are defined as “left behind” (liushou ertong), when one or both parents are away working. In some of the country’s largest provinces, such as Sichuan and Jiangsu, more than half of all rural children have been left behind according to School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China. ”Of the married people we meet, almost all are living apart from their children. The children most often stay with grandparents in the migrant workers’ hometowns. I’ve been to villages with plenty of children around, but no adults between 20 and 50. But it differs widely by area and industry,” says Li Wang.

Ying plans to work in Shenzhen until her daughter starts in kindergarten. Then she will return home with her savings and take care of her daughter. But as Li Wang points out, ”Many women hope to go home when their children start school, and when that happens, it may be that just one parent goes home, but in reality very few people have that choice. They can’t make enough when they go home to support their families.”

Ying still believes in her marriage, but not in the love of her husband. She also believes in her ability to save up to return home to her daughter in a few years. She feels too guilty at leaving her daughter to believe otherwise. ”It is the combination of excessive overtime and low salaries that is resulting in the sad personal situations of many migrants,” Suet Wah of CWWN says. ”Unfortunately, the behaviour of many workers also contributes. They want to earn as much as they can, so many accept as much overtime as possible. To some extent they don’t have a choice. Overtime is a big part of their income and really matters.”

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Peter Bengtsen is an investigative journalist based in Copenhagen (peterbengtsen.com).

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