Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Huang Zhihua

The Law is by my Side

I am a working sister from Guizhou.[1] I've been working in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone[2] for eight years. I started as an ordinary worker on the factory production line. Now I'm a skilled worker in management. I owe my good fortune not only to my diligence and effort, but, in even greater part, to the Law, which time and again has set me on the right path.

Shenzhen is a city full of temptation. You often hear stories about the big money who throw away cash like dirt. I'd think about the wages I earned with my sweat and toil each month, and how there was hardly anything left after my living expenses, and I'd wonder when I would ever be able to realise my own dreams. The feeling of inequity kept welling up involuntarily and pushed me to think every minute about how to make more money. Then a middle-aged migrant woman worker from Tai'an, in Shandong province, said to me: 'Come with me back to Guizhou and we'll dupe some pretty Miao girls into going to our Tai'an region. In one trip we can make thousands of bucks.' Looking at her excited face, I was nearly persuaded. When I returned to the dormitory and talked to a girl from my home county about it, she was furious with me. 'That is called kidnapping and selling women and it is illegal. Don't fall into that trap'. I felt I was waking from a dream. I refused the offer, and from this I came to appreciate the dangers of not understanding the law. I went especially to a bookshop and bought a copy of the 'Reader on basic legal knowledge for workers and staff'. When I had some free time I read it and explained to the other girls how to learn, apply and abide by the law.

In the summer of 1996, I started work in a joint venture factory. In order to speed up production, the boss demanded overtime from us every day, with very low pay. In addition, the workshops were overcrowded with machines and equipment and the heat was like being inside a steamer basket. Some working sisters got so tired that they truly couldn't bear it and didn't want to do overtime. After learning this, the boss threatened to send them packing. Looking at the overworked, exhausted faces of these working sisters I felt some responsibility to seek redress. I prepared myself to be sacked by the boss. The next day, I took a copy of the 'Labour Law of the People's Republic of China' and went to the boss's office. I showed him the relevant clauses, saying, 'The workers' overtime has far exceeded the limit set by the "Labour Law" and furthermore, you did not pay wages in accordance with the law.' The boss stared at me, this uninvited guest, and said to me angrily: 'You're not the boss and you don't understand what it's like to be fined for failing to fulfil an order.' I said to him calmly: 'I understand, but you cannot gamble with workers' health just in order to speed up production. Moreover, what you are doing is illegal. If the workers go to the Labour department to complain, you will land yourself in serious trouble.' The boss softened his stance and took a conciliatory approach. 'What ideas have you got to complete the production tasks without working overtime?' I said, 'There are lots of ways. For instance, you could do something to lower the temperature in the workshops and improve the working conditions of the workers. In addition, you could invest in better food and improve the workers' nutrition. Furthermore, you could pay workers overtime according to the Labour Law. If the worker's enthusiasm is aroused, the efficiency will most definitely double, and then you won't have to worry about not fulfilling the order, will you?' Realising that what I said was reasonable, the boss clapped his hands and said, 'Lets do it your way.'

After this incident, the boss not only did not send me packing; he promoted me to the position of assistant to the deputy manager.

When I went home to see my relatives and to discuss this with the head of the village Women's Federation, she gave me a few issues of Rural Women Knowing All to look at. After reading them over and over, I further understood the situation with regards to the rights of working sisters. That's why I wanted to borrow a bit of space in your magazine. I hope that I can pass on to all the migrant women workers what I have learnt from my personal experience. Let the Law be your protection on your journey in life!


[1] Huang Zhihua's story was originally published in Nongjianü Baishitong [Rural Women Knowing All], 4, (1999): 32-33, translated by Tamara Jacka and Song Xianlin.

'Working sister' [Dagong mei] is a term used to refer to rural migrant women. Guizhou is a poor province in the South of China.

[2] The Special Economic Zones were set up to attract foreign investment by offering foreign funded firms, including wholly foreign owned factories, and joint ventures, tax concessions and lax labour regulations. Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, in Guangdong Province, was officially opened in 1980, along with Zhuhai and Shantou Special Economic Zones. Since then, many other Special Economic Zones and 'open areas' have been established across the country. They are key areas of employment for rural migrants, especially young women. The situation of rural migrant women in Shenzhen is discussed in Ching Kwan Lee, Gender and the South China Miracle. Two Worlds of Factory Women, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1998; and Pun Ngai, 'Becoming dagongmei (working girls): the politics of identity and difference in reform China', The China Journal, 42, (1999): 1-20.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 19 March 2008 1451 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright