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China’s rural to urban migration for the past two decades is the largest human migration in history. Only in recent years have scholars begun to study and understand this population that’s often hidden from view—voiceless and without representation.
In the summer of 2013, I set out on a two-month journey, traveling through six cities in China, in an attempt to understand the labor activism issues there. There was no air conditioning inside and I could feel my cotton t-shirt clinging to my back as soon as I stepped into the hall. Xu guided me into one of the conference rooms, which was already filled with fifty or so migrant workers. Looking around, I realized that the people around me did not quite fit the stereotype of “migrant laborers” I had in mind, conjured from literary works and the media. After a deep breath, I squeezed past a couple of people, and placed myself in a corner in the back. Next, Xu moved on to talk about the process of injury evaluations, explaining that there are ten levels—one being the most severe, and ten the most minor. The next few hours went by quickly, as the director explained the steps of filing for compensation for occupational injuries, using clever delivery and effective examples.
Putting these faces to the statistics I had been reading about all summer was an unsettling yet powerful experience.
However, as China awed the world with its rapid economic development, reports generally fail to mention the millions of internal-migrant workers who will not be able to take advantage of this economic boom. In 2010, Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronic manufacturer for major brand names—such as Apple, Dell and Toshiba—caught the world’s attention when thirteen young migrant workers in Shenzhen attempted suicide all within a period of five months. Below is an account of my experience at the Southern Sparrow NGO in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China. Without much hesitation, I strode up to three NGO workers sitting behind a long table with sign-in sheets.
They were not in ragged, old clothes full of patches nor did they look depressed and stressed out.
My goal was to simply sit back and observe the crowd, as I wanted to learn how the service center conducted legal advice sessions and see how the migrant workers interacted with the consultants as well as with each other.
But here at Southern Sparrow, we do have a chart that lists the requirements for each level. The room instantly silenced as if we were sucked into a giant vacuum, and all heads turned to search for the source of that voice. The audience continued to listen, occasionally interrupting with morbid jokes involving their own experiences. Those I had once tallied as figures have now become individuals, and in some cases, even friends.

Those who made a significant contribution to China’s growing economy are often in fact the same people who are living on the fringes of society and working in horrific conditions in factories, construction sites, and so on. We had reached the fourth floor, and I stepped out to see a washed-up, light blue banner hanging from the ceiling.
In fact, some of the women had dyed and permed their hair, resulting in light-brown, loose curls, and others had their hair styled with decorative hair pieces. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how easy it was for me to become invisible among the laborers. Xu’s eyes twinkled, and she went on in a surprisingly light-hearted manner, explaining the requirements needed for an injury to be counted as work-related.
Suddenly, a hand shot up in the air, and its owner yelled out with a strong southern accent: “Hey Director, what level do you think this would be?” Upon closer examination, it hit me that there were only four fingers—he was missing a pinky! However, even such treatments are well beyond what migrant workers could afford, typically sending many families into extreme poverty and debt. Several times they chuckled collectively at the ridiculousness of the inconsistencies presented by China’s underdeveloped labor laws. These people work 12-hour shifts to manufacture the products seen every day in our markets, clothing stores, tech shops, etc.
Ten Chinese characters, written in red and outlined in white, read Nan Fei Yan She Hui Gong Zuo Fu Wu Bu with its English translation underneath, in a smaller, black font: Southern Sparrow Social Work Service Center. She looked like she was around my age, with rounded shoulders, and was wearing a light blue Southern Sparrow t-shirt that was way too big for her. Their clothes looked similar to my own wardrobe and I found myself admiring some of their jewelry. As soon as Xu called for people to quiet down and began her introductory speech, all gazes turned toward her. Before I could catch my breath, a guy to my right stood up and waved around his left arm: “And this?!” There was a long, puckered ridge curling up across his forearm. Through the roomful of people, I could make out a thin man who looked to be in his late thirties, dressed in a dark blue, short sleeved cotton t-shirt that draped around his small figure, only outlining a hunched back. Every now and then, there would be outcries of “What the hell is this?”—more out of despair than earnestly trying to figure it out. Yet often times in the face of glossy plastics or brightly colored fabrics, we, as consumers, give surprisingly little thought about the backstage politics along the supply chain. This non-government organization (NGO) based in Guangzhou, Guangdong was established in December of 2009 with the purpose of safeguarding the rights and interests of migrant laborers by providing free legal advice and litigation courses to workers and their families.
As I walked closer, I could clearly see a trail of sweat trickling down the side of her face, causing her thick-rimmed glasses to slide down repeatedly.
The laborers sat on colorful, plastic stools of various heights that loosely formed a messy circle of three rows.

The men had a wider variety of clothes, from sandals and scrubs to leather-looking oxford shoes and button-up short sleeves. While the wound was clearly months old, I could feel a stab of pain just from looking at it. It was likely, but we never got a chance to learn his full story before Director Xu called for everyone to refocus.
Its main goal is to enhance the workers’ legal awareness, thus empowering them to demand better treatment. A few looked up curiously as we entered the room, but most continued chatting with their neighbors without noticing us. One man in front of me nodded enthusiastically to each of Xu’s points, apparently having already known this information. Soon enough, everyone began showing their injured limbs or stumps where appendages used to be. He popped his head above the sea of black hair to reveal a boyish grin: “The tip of these fingers were cut off, and it’s difficult to scratch myself without nails!” The crowd laughed, and that seemed to stir up the group again. His expression was wary, and his shoulders heaved up and down as he struggled with shortness of breath.
We needed to move on with the consulting lecture, so that people could get all the necessary information before retuning to work that very afternoon.
After several attempts at arranging a visit, the opportunity for one finally arose when the main director, Xu Xiaobo, told me about a law consulting session for local migrant workers.
Most of them seemed to be in their late twenties to early thirties and two-thirds of the group was comprised of men. I had been picturing this moment all morning —what the office space would look like, how the migrant workers would act, how the law advisers would explain China’s complicated legal system in colloquial language, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience. A small boy in black and yellow striped sweats acted out battle scenes with his action figures on the floor by the door.
I felt slightly suffocated just watching this shell of a body attempting to grasp the last remnants of life. In one swift, continuous motion, she gave a slight nod, pushed up her glasses, and stuck out both hands to shake mine: “Hello, hello!

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