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Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers

Jonathan Sullivan03 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour. Hsiao-Hung Pai. (London: Penguin, 2008).

In 2004, on a freezing night in February, 21 Chinese migrant workers (pictured) were caught and drowned by the treacherous tides on the Morecombe Bay cockle beds in north-west England. The tragedy (拾貝慘案) revealed to mainstream British audiences the extent of the “problem” of undocumented Chinese workers and the middlemen, agents and snakeheads who were exploiting them in the name of putting food more cheaply on our supermarket shelves. As the restructuring of the Chinese economy proceeded in the mid-late 1990s, particularly layoffs in the SOE sector that removed tens of millions of “iron rice bowls”, more and more Chinese were compelled to gamble on better economic opportunities outside of China. This migration was less ballyhooed than the domestic migration from the countryside to the cities and the ‘going out’ of Chinese companies. But it is the reason why Chinese traders and workers can be found in nooks and crannies the world over making livings in some of the most unpromising conditions imaginable. The desperate lengths that some Chinese migrants were forced to go to and the desperate conditions that they end up in have given rise to a string of tragedies from the Morecombe Bay cockle pickers, to would-be migrants suffocating in a Dutch lorry, to garment workers dying in an Italian factory fire.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is a Taiwanese born journalist who covered the Morecombe Bay tragedy for The Guardian, and has also written about migrant sex workers in the UK. In Chinese Whispers, she presents a gripping, depressing, eye-opening exposé of the system, the practices and the people that structure the “informal” labour market in the UK. It is about the formal and informal institutions within the UK political economy that allow Chinese workers (and those from other countries who figure only as shadows on the margin in this book) to be treated in ways that no one should be comfortable with. Perhaps it is because I am English that the working and living conditions for undocumented Chinese workers in grim industrial towns like Hartlepool seems exaggeratedly bad. As an Englishman, it strikes me that no one should live like this in England, many people to a small room in a leaky and mouldy terrace—but of course plenty do, and not just Chinese, and not just immigrants from outside the UK. The book does not pander to those in search of the unremittingly awful—by no stretch of the imagination is “misfortune porn”. It is a human study, and even the least sympathetic characters have redeeming qualities or grievances. In one sense the human focus is a drawback, since it is structural elements in the political-economy that are to blame and need changing. Then again, this is reportage and exposé rather than a theoretical manifesto for change, and the major achievement of the book is to reclaim these Chinese lives and make them more than grim statistics.

The book is about workers, recruiters and middlemen who liaise between workers and employment agencies. People like Mr Lin, who’s rudimentary English enabled him to climb half a rung above the workers for whom he finds work, charging them for the privilege, and skims off wages for bed and board. It is easy to hate Mr Lin, a cold, grasping man with no scruples and no empathy. But then you consider that he is only slightly better off than the workers he exploits. Men like Zhang Guohua, who came to the UK as a healthy 39 year old after being laid off by his SOE. Zhang arrived in the UK speaking no English and knowing no one. His only point of contact was the name of a Chinese scribbled on a piece of paper who ran a recruiting firm. Having paid his savings to him to acquire the (forged) papers he needed to be employed by the British employment agency, Zhang was literally worked to death. He died from exhaustion, within six months of being in England, stamping seals on the doors of microwaves at a factory supplying a global electronics company everyone knows very well. As is always the case, the tragedy for Zhang’s family did not end with his death. Zhang’s wife was sent a perfunctory and untranslated notice of death, which she didn’t comprehend the meaning of until much later. When she travelled to the UK to seek answers to the seemingly mysterious death of her husband, Mrs Zhang encountered a veil of silence on the part of Zhang’s cowed co-workers, and deliberate obfuscation on the part of the middlemen, the recruitment agency and the factory. The hospital had lost Zhang’s records (actually they spelt his name wrong); the Chinese embassy did not want to get involved with an undocumented migrant. In a tragicomic twist, the Chinese agent found Mrs Zhang, with her dwindling life savings, work in the factory as recompense. But having Zhang’s widow around was too uncomfortable and eventually she was hounded out.

Zhang is one of many deaths that would have been unknown but for the author’s efforts. She spent many years on the trail of such unknown tragedies, piecing together fragments of information. She also went undercover, playing the role of an undocumented worker. On her very first night it led her into the bed of Mr Lin—or so he planned, but the author was not really an undocumented worker and could afford the risk of rebutting him. She ends up in a shared dive in Thetford, gateway to the agricultural and food processing industries of rural Norfolk in the East of England, an informal economy to which many migrant workers gravitate. She soon finds out that getting regular work is difficult; sometimes she turns up at the agency and there is no work available. Other times she works in one place for a few days or a few weeks. Bribing the British employees at the temp agency works wonders. Wages are low to begin with, and then there are deductions for (substandard) food, rent, transport and the middleman’s cut. Sometimes wages aren’t paid. Sometimes the thievery is more blatant. Workers live in fear of Chinese gangs who steal their meagre savings. Workers in the shared house spend £6 a week on their own food; for 70-100 hours working on the factory floor or in the fields and warehouses. The reader, sitting on their comfortable sofa, wonders if the rewards are worth the monotony, discomfort and fatigue of hour upon hour, week on week of handling meat for processing into pies, or washing salad vegetables in year-round freezing water, or breathing the plastic air of the shop floor. The workers aren’t stupid or unreflexive; they ask themselves the same question. Is it worth it? What am I doing here? Many of them have gambled everything on getting to the UK and the chance of a better life—getting out or going back isn’t that straightforward.

Amid the drudgery and the grim surroundings there are moments of reprieve. Food, specifically the taste of regional cuisine, offers the workers succour. Pancakes and dumplings are rustled up; country boys catch dozy English rabbits to make stew. Somehow they find the energy for marathon weekend sessions of Mah-jong (麻将). And they gossip. But gossip always ends up with reminiscences of the old country, friends who have been lost or unpalatable present truths. There are rivalries and petty squabbles, and there is solidarity in suffering. But bonds are easily broken; work dries up, people fall out and friends move on.

The motivations of the undocumented workers Pai spoke to are utterly banal; unemployment and lack of economic opportunities in China. In many cases arriving in the UK was down to blind luck. Family and friend connections play a big role in determining where migrants end up. Mostly, these connections all but disappeared once they had actually reached the UK. No one expected the roads to be paved with gold; but most hoped to do better than staying in China. Such is their limited experience of the UK these workers could have been anywhere in the world. On a typical day they are picked up in the early morning, driven to factory or fields and returned to the house late at night. With little disposable income, no English language skills, no friends or acquaintances outside of their co-workers, and with the constant fear of being found without legitimate documentation, weekends that aren’t worked are spent in the rundown shared house catching up with domestic chores and sleep. It is a numbing routine, slow progress towards total alienation. Indeed the dehumanizing ‘un-becoming’ starts almost as soon as they arrive in the country ad seek work: Every undocumented worker must purchase the papers that provide the British agency sufficient plausible deniability to employ them. Legitimate documents from many years ago, photocopied hundreds of times and used by dozens of different workers require them to adopt the name of that long since departed legal worker. Henceforth workers are taught to forget their own name.

Jonathan Sullivan is Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He tweets @jonlsullivan

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