A Voice for Women Migrant Workers

May 23, 2015

Amanda Nagy

Women assemble lighters at a factory in Xuyi, China. In the booming coastal cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan, women occupy most of the positions in textile, consumer electronics production, and cleaning industries.
Photo credit: Getty Images

First-year student Dai Li has received a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace program for a project that aims to empower Chinese women factory workers.

Projects for Peace, founded by international philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, is an initiative that encourages students to design grassroots projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict. Applicants from 90 partner colleges and universities are selected through a competitive process and funded at $10,000 each. The overall program is intended to be worldwide in scope and impact, but specific projects may be undertaken anywhere, including in the United States.

Li, an international student from Shaoshan, China, has been involved with workers’ rights since she was 15, when she began volunteering for a non-governmental organization (NGO) alongside her mother. Labor unrest and workers’ rights present a dilemma for China’s government as the economy modernizes. Her mother is a labor-interest scholar outside of her day job, which makes her a target for government watch groups. Coincidentally, her family lives in the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung—“We’re known for our revolutionary spirit,” she says.

The Chinese Pearl River Delta Zone has witnessed the greatest migration in human history, more than 130 million workers over the last three decades. Young migrants moved from villages to urban-industrial China to seek a better livelihood, assuming a crucial role in China’s economic boom and transforming their lives. Tens of millions of workers left their homes, separating from their families, to find work in the factories of China's booming coastal cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan.

Most of Li’s work up to this point has been focused on the working conditions of male-dominated mining operations. With this grant, she is turning her attention to women migrant workers. Although the condition of migrant workers has captured the attention from Chinese public and labor NGOs, the suffering of young women remains largely unexplored.

She points to the prosperous city of Zhenzhen, where more than 80 percent of the population is composed of migrant workers; the overwhelming majority are women who occupy most of the positions in textile, consumer electronics production, and cleaning industries.

Women, Li explains, are particularly susceptible to domestic violence, lower pay, sexual harassment, higher unemployment rates, and sexism-tinged workplace discrimination. Women also assume the additional responsibility of serving as family caretakers. All these factors make China’s women more socio-economically vulnerable than men.

In summer 2014, Li worked with a Guangzhou-based organization, Sunflower, which helps women workers defend their rights. Her research, published in the Chinese-language New York Times, found there is a higher level of mobility among female workers, as they are more likely to be treated unfairly and forced to leave their work without getting paid properly. “When laid off work abruptly, they suffer acute mental illness and suicides,” she states in her project proposal. “Many young factory girls in their early 20s are poorly educated and start working by joining assembly lines as teenagers. In electronic factories, female workers have to stare into microscopes for more than 12 hours a day, without a day off.”

Li hopes to tackle these problems through technology—specifically, smartphone literacy—that will help women communicate with and educate each other about workers’ rights. She is developing a downloadable app that will increase cell phone literacy for this purpose. The app is targeted to the underprivileged, disadvantaged Chinese female worker, the majority of whom use inexpensive Android smartphones.

Li’s research last summer found that, despite the prevalence of smartphones, men are more likely to use social network and chatting apps. “I believe that in order for women to gain greater control of their lives, reduce their dependency on their husbands, families, and unstable economic situations, they should acquire more advanced communications skills with each other,” Li says.

Earlier this year, she received a $500 ignition fund from Oberlin’s Creativity & Leadership project to begin the planning and design for the app. She also started a website with published articles written by worker activists from Chinese labor NGOs to help workers get socially and politically engaged to defend their rights when they are treated unfairly.

Li says the Android app will be small, simple, and easy to use. In addition to hosting a library of labor articles, workers can use the app to receive accurate and timely legal information about the progress of legal cases and strike updates. It will also include a chat room and communication platform to post messages about labor issues and strikes. This summer, Li will recruit volunteers and organize three workshops outside the factory gates to train women workers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen to use the app.

Li says she gets her drive from her training as an athlete. Before she came to Oberlin, she had to make a choice between continuing her education and training for China’s national gymnastics team. She was also active in competitive cheerleading and tumbling.

“I’ve been an athlete since I was 6. For me, it inspired feminist thinking, because I was doing the same work as the boys. We ran together and trained together.”

At Oberlin, Li intends to major in English. During winter term, she collaborated with Marc Blecher, professor of politics and East Asian studies, and Professor Ralph Lutzinger of Duke University for research on globalization and work hazards.

In the future, she says she’d like to explore arts as a tool for Chinese migrant workers to find community. “A strike is a short-term solution. Workers get their pay, then it’s over. I think arts and culture can be more effective means for solving problems.”

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