Sunday, June 20, 2010

Steet Life in Modern China

Some of you will know that I have spent most of the last month in Southern China, working in an electronics factory.

After 3 weeks of "putting up" with the basic living conditions, the squalor, squat toilets, the mad traffic and the lack of written or spoken English, I guess cabin fever begins to set in.

It came to a head last night when my boss decided that it would be good if I spent another week here, but sadly I only have a 30 day visa - so I'm back on a plane next Wednesday.

Whilst cooped up in the hotel room in the evenings - it is dark by 7:15pm, and the streets are not safe more than a few 100 metres from the hotel, you spend the time reading internet forums and blogs, listening to the BBC World Service and Radio 4 - and having a couple of beers.

Tsing Tao Beer, sells for about 30 - 45p a 600ml bottle in the convenience store around the block, but in the hotel bar, a 330ml bottle is £3.50 - talk about exploiting the guests! So I tend to support the local shopkeepers and buy my beer outside of the mad oasis, I find myself bunkered in.

The empty bottles are recyclable, and 4 bottles will fetch about 1 Yuan or 10p. Tonight I dropped off 8 empties, on the way around to the store.

At night, the streets become alive with those that perform the recycling function. Men and women on trikes and motorised 3 wheelers, tidy up the streets of all the cardboard, glass, packaging, food waste that is produced by the businesses in a busy town during the day. If it were not for these nocturnal workers the town would drown in it's own filth. Nothing goes to waste - this economy cannot afford to waste anything of value - no matter how small that value might be.

Particularly noticeable is the 3-wheelers with a couple of blue barrels on the back. These belong to the grease collectors, and they perform a nightly function of clearing the hotel and restaurant drains of the coagulated fat that collects in the grease traps. Tonight I passed a couple of them, clearing the traps of this hotel, using a sieve on the end of a bamboo pole. The stinking grease is collected in the plastic barrels and then taken somewhere where it is rendered down, filtered and probably goes towards making fuel for the basic tractors that they run around here.

As I left the £60 a night, 5 star hotel, I spared a thought for the old man collecting cardboard onto his tricycle at the back of the hotel. I gave him the 8 empty beer bottles, which he gratefully accepted - with not a little incredulity. The 2 yuan that these fetch, will probably mean that he eats a little better tonight.

The minimum wage for registered workers in this area is 1000 Yuan (£100) a month. For those that have migrated from the rural areas and do not have the correct urban "hukou" registration papers - their chances of a minimum wage are totally non-existent - they are not recognised by the state and have no entitlements - a virtual slave class in what was supposed to be an equal Communist society. Hence their seemingly scavenging life, not only provides an essential service for the district, but provides for them a very meagre source of income. China provides no welfare safety net for the elderly, infirm or out of work. The Hukou system has effectively forced a two tier society of the waged and the unwaged. The rural migrants do not appear on any unemployment statistics and are thus effectively hidden from the official figures - however, they are very much in existence, and very much present for those who only care to look.

So when you buy your laptops, iPhones, iPods and solar panels from China - don't worry about the factory workers. They are the lucky ones working in relatively well paid jobs. Of greater concern is their parents generation, outcast in the 1960s by Mao's radical reforms, and in 40 years are still out of kilter with "modern" China, and will remain so until they work themselves towards an early grave.

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