The Life of Labour: The Chinese Factory Workers Who Write Poetry on Their Phones

A compilation of important labour developments from around the world.

The Chinese factory workers who write poetry on their phones

Lithub carries a heartbreaking story about the poetry that has been coming out of the Chinese special economic zones where migrant workers flock in search of work. The poetry captures the pain behind Eric Fromm’s warning in 1965 that, “the danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.” These poets make time outside their 14 hour shifts to type poems out on their cell phones and post them online. You can find a huge collection at

The focus of the story is the poet Xu Lizhi who threw himself from the 17th floor of a building at the age of 24. He used to work at Foxconn city, “the electronics mega-factory in Shenzhen famed not only for manufacturing all our Apple products, but for a spate of suicides in 2010 that exposed the sinister myth of opportunity and social mobility on the assembly line: “To die is the only way to testify that we ever lived,” wrote one blogger at the factory. (Foxconn subsequently erected netting to prevent not the despair but the death toll.)”

Here’s one of his poems titled ‘I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That’ and you can find more here:

The paper before my eyes fades yellow
With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black
Full of working words
Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages…
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month
To grant me some belated solace
For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words
Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons
Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early
By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,
How many days, how many nights
Did I – just like that – standing fall asleep?

A documentary and an anthology of poetry, both titled Iron Moon, a phrase from Xu Lizhi, capture the work and lives of this new generation of voices, for whom the act of writing these words is a way to “reclaim their own sense of humanity”. At the same time, “the poems also provide an opportunity for us not to lazily point fingers at China’s human rights abuses, but to think about our own casual complicity in these workers’ hardship. Their eloquent commitment to poetry provides another way of understanding the cost of sweatshop labor that stretches way beyond cold, unfeeling economics.”

Brick kilns and bonded labour in Karnataka

The Hindu reports that, “Thirty-one people, including 12 children, were recently rescued from a brick kiln in Bagalur where they were kept in inhumane conditions and exploited as bonded labourers.” They had been brought by a middleman from Orissa about 8 months ago. “Once they reached Bengaluru, through coercion, threat and violence, they were made to work for over 12 hours every day. They were paid just ₹42 a day.” The 12 children were also made to work in the kiln. When some tried to leave, they were threatened with physical violence and rape.

MNREGA’s village empowerment goals swept aside by state government’s target-setting

MNREGA was supposed to be a way where gram panchayats could execute work that needed to be done in their area that would benefit their villagers. While a large-scale participatory exercise to identify required infrastructure was done, mismanagement by state governments like in Jharkhand have ensured that the whole exercise was rendered pointless.

Excerpt from Anikta Aggarwal’s article on Jharkhand: “By early June, the state government had started ordering the local administration to show constructed farm ponds as “complete” in NREGASoft, a management information system where data about the various projects are uploaded online. Under pressure, MGNREGA functionaries also categorised as “complete” farm ponds on which work had not even begun or was incomplete. Thousands of farm ponds for which wages still had to be paid to workers were also shown as complete (it is not possible to pay workers if the project has been marked complete on NREGASoft). The premature closing of schemes left a staggering number of workers without wages and grossly exaggerated the number of completed projects.”

Other news:

Marble stone mine caves in, kills three: At least three workers have died in Makrana in Rajasthan when a marble mine collapsed and crushed them. The police has stated that no case has been filed as no complaint was received against the management.

Workers, students and lawyers gherao the labour commissionerate in Chennai: Amidst heavy police presence, hundred of people gathered to protest the state of workers’ rights. Among their demands were the abolishment of exploitative apprentice and contract worker systems, legislation around the recognition of trade unions and implementation of the existing industrial standing order rules.

Turkish glassworkers fight strike ban by remaining in factories: “Almost 6,000 workers, members of the Kristal-İş glass union, are not leaving the factories of multinational glass manufacturer Şişecam at the end of their shifts. This remarkable action comes after the Turkish government banned legitimate strike action in a dispute over wages and other working conditions. Şişecam has increased its profits by 164 per cent, but not made a serious wage offer.” Read more here.

Weekend reading:

  • The first two instalments of Chandrika Radhakrishnan’s observations on unionisation and the working class movement, written for Aainanagar, can be found here and here.


  • Feminist organising and the women’s strike: An interview with Cinzia Arruzza.


  • ‘Between the Black Body and Me’, R.L. Stephen’s critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings on Race.

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