Migrant Worker Captain: "And No Falling in Love!"

By Wei Liming
Published: 2009-03-03

Nation page 13 issue 407 February 23
Translated by Liu Peng
Original article

"Good day, comrades!" Zhang Quanshou's greeting shot from a loud speaker, echoing through a square in Shenzhen, a coastal city in southern China.

"Dear Sir! All is well!" some 1,500 young men and women standing in attention there responded in unison.

"Squad down!" Zhang commanded through the loud speaker again, and the crowds in the square followed the order.

Zhang turned to face a staff recruiter sent by a Taiwanese-invested shoe factory based in Hainan, and said: "Well, as you can see, they are very obedient folks, you will not regret recruiting them."

Commander of Migrant Workers
Zhang, nicknamed 'the commander of migrant workers', is the board chairman of Shenzhen Quanshun Staffing firm, an agency specializing in sourcing migrant workers for factories.

"For the past week, I have been visiting at least eight factories a day to market my contracted migrant workers. I even have blisters in the mouth from over-exerting myself," said Zhang, who has under his care an army of 2,000 contracted migrant workers awaiting deployment.

On top of that, another 800 or so workers approached Zhang almost on a daily basis, asking to be taken under his wing for job placement, but Zhang was hesitant to take in more.

Zhang had been anxious and working double to try to dispatch the workers, as delayed deployment would incur extra costs for sheltering and feeding them.

Things were quite different from previous years, when Zhang was able to hold on to a reserve of 10,000 workers, which usually could be assigned quickly. Many factories' chiefs had even paid personal visits to Zhang to request for staff.

In those better years, droves of migrant workers from Henan, Anhui and Shandong provinces had flocked to Zhang's staffing firm. They were usually put up for two or three days in staff quarters converted from two defunct workshops, before being dispatched to factories in the Pearl River Delta region, the export-oriented industry hub of southern China.

While waiting for their job posting, the workers' accommodation and meals were provided by Zhang's company, which also handed out 25 yuan of daily allowance for those who were in between jobs.

Zhang, formerly a toy factory owner, founded his staffing agency in 2001 in Shenzhen, which at the time had been hit by a wave of labor shortage. Sensing the business opportunity, Zhang positioned his agency as a pooling center for migrant workers and a training ground before deployment. Zhang like to refer to his company as the "boot camp" for migrant workers.

However, eight years down the road, more and more migrant workers had remained stuck at his camp for weeks or over a month at a time.

Since the end of the Lunar New Year, Zhang had managed to deploy nearly 4,000 workers--only one third of what was achieved during the same period last year.

"We used to have established partnerships with over 100 firms, of which, 30 were very close. But now, only about ten firms remain in touch with us," said Zhang, adding he had been turning down workers seeking for help and advised them to try again in the second half of this year.

At present, Zhang said he preferred to recruit female workers around aged 18 and 19, as they were more popular among employers.

He said he needed at least 30,000 yuan a day to feed the army of men and women under his care, and he could not keep up with sustaining more than a few thousands worker-in-the-wait at a time.

His staffing quarters were already filled to the brim, and local authorities and police had already warned him to keep a close eye on his workers.

Zhang then exhibited his full command over the workers for the benefit of the officers. "Attention! Squad down! Stand up!" Zhang yelled into a loud speaker, and the workers did as told.

"See ... they are very obedient to me, like I am their father," boasted Zhang to the police.

Supply and Demand
Whenever local officials inspected his company, Zhang would handed them a business card identifying him as a National People's Congress representative.

Last year, Zhang was appointed a representative for Henan province, representing the migrant worker community. He was supposed to help the government to address problems related to migrant workers, but he was himself crushed under pressure with the current situation.

Zhang recalled signs of trouble appeared in May last year, when some factories alerted him that there would be no more jobs for his workers in two months.

By July, some factories had already started to tumble, and by November, a wave of factory closures took place. More and more workers returned to Zhang's camp.

On February 15 this year, Zhang appeared in an interview program, broadcast by the state television station, to discuss the hardship of migrant workers in sourcing jobs.

Though he received numerous enquiries from all over the country for contracting workers after the show was aired, Zhang said the majority of the companies took in less than 100 staff each, unlike in the golden days, when each "human cargo" order could run into a several hundred or even over a thousand.

While Zhang was complaining how difficult it was to market his workers, a Taiwanese businessman surname Wang told the EO that it was equally hard to recruit qualified and skilled ones.

Wang said he would be reluctant to take in green horns, who needed training and a period of familiarization to become effective.

Knowing the market demand, Zhang planned to add training programs for his contracted workers.

However, the training that Zhang could come up with up till now was limited to instilling discipline among his workers. For instance, he lectured on behavior guidelines: "no spitting in public, no smoking or drinking, no falling in love, no fighting, no borrowing money, no weird dressing....."

Zhang told the workers that with the right attitude and good behaviour, they would be able to bring home annual earnings of over 10,000 yuan.

Aspiring to achieve such a promising income, Chen Xiao (anonym) from Henan province had marched up to Zhang's firm. At present, he shared a 30-square-meter room with 27 other workers in a dormitory provided by Zhang's company.

While Chen was still waiting for job deployment, he was usually summoned to join the lectures held in the company's playground. He said that while he sat there he liked scanning his boss up and down, wondering how he could succeed to become a boss, owning ten factories, driving an Audi A8 and living in a villa worth over 10 million yuan.

Not everyone was impressed with Zhang, however. At Baidu, China's largest online search engine and portal, there was a blog dedicated to Zhang Quanshou. Some netizens had left messages there calling Zhang an exploitative boss, worse than those running illegal workshops, and accusing him of treating staff insensitively.

Zhang rebutted by saying that though his company imposed a management fee worth between 50 yuan and 200 yuan per month per worker, he never shortchanged or delayed paying wages to his contracted workers.

He also cited an incident when a factory boss who hired 200 migrant workers from Zhang's staffing firm had run away without paying the staff, and Zhang claimed he eventually paid those workers out of his own pocket.
For Chen Xiao, he cared not of Zhang's reputation, he said he only wished that he would be picked by the Taiwanese businessman to work in the shoe factory and make good money.

Harbouring such a dream, he followed obediently his commander's order, such as gathering in the playground and listening to lectures. They even had a routine for singing a song to boast their spirit: "Bidding farewell to our parents and hometowns; we have traveled the distance, with brilliant dreams in our minds, to seek for opportunities; we do not fear trials and hardship..."