Understanding the struggles of migrant workers through song

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Sun Heng, founder of the Migrant Workers’ Home and leader of the New Workers Art Troupe, sings at Tseung Kwan O Plaza in Oxfam's "Don't You Hear?" music salon in May. The troupe often performs at different work sites in Mainland China. (Ray Fung)

With Mainland China’s cities growing at a breakneck speed, farmers have been attracted to move to urban areas in search of a better jobs and lives. The bright cosmopolitan lights exhilarate them at first. But when the initial excitement ends, many find life is not necessarily easier compared to in their home towns.

When you are drunk, you can say you are homesick
How you miss your wife and children
How you work harder and harder for them every day
How you wake early in the morning
Work late into the night
How tired you are, but harder and harder
You work for them every day

These lyrics are taken from the song “Brother Bill”, written by Sun Heng, founder of the Migrant Workers’ Home and leader of the New Workers Art Troupe. Sun had written the song for a worker called Brother Bill, whom he had met one day while drifting around at a construction site in Beijing. There, Brother Bill, a migrant worker from Anhui Province, sat down next to him without saying a word. It was not until the third day that he told Sun about his sadness and longing for his family. The lyrics in “Brother Bill” continue:

Day by day, year by year, the days have passed
What you possess: a pair of empty hands

When Sun sings “Brother Bill”, he moves workers emotionally. They think about home, their fatigue, their loneliness. They think about employers cheating them, urban residents looking down on them, and other unhappy things. The song uncorks emotions of all kinds that the workers keep bottled inside. Yet in spite of all the feelings that spill out, there is no joy. Life goes on like this for years. In the end the workers remain empty-handed. The New Workers Art Troupe has written many songs for migrant workers and the low-income population. “Joining together to fight for compensation” is another song which brings workers together. The song goes like this:

After I have slaved away for a whole year, my boss won’t pay my wages
Boss Chau looks kind but has a dark heart. He pretends he doesn’t see me

At constructions sites, factories and work sites, whenever Sun performs, workers in the audience start to sing and bob their heads to the music within the first half of the song. When he sings about difficulties in the cities, everyone starts moving to the tune. When he sings about home, everyone starts to cry. Many migrant workers do jobs without contracts and do not have enough legal protection. When their employers fail to pay their wages, their hard work goes to waste. If they get injured at work, they must go through a long, frustrating process to get compensation. It is no wonder that people get emotional when they hear this song.

The lyrics reveal the difficulties big and small that migrant workers are confronted with when they go to work in cities. Many feel that they are rootless. Because land is taken away for development, they are often forced to move. The peripatetic life has become normal to them. Sun knows a child who has changed homes multiple times in three years. Once, that child had to pack up at a moment’s notice after coming home from school. He did not even have time to say goodbye to his classmates and teachers. Today in China, there are 40 million migrant children who must constantly switch from place to place. This will definitely have an impact on their development.

Children and adults alike do not want to live like itinerant wanderers. Most migrant workers born in the 1980s and 1990s want to settle down in cities. Some among this new generation of migrant workers moved with their parents when they were young and lack experience in rural life. Some were born in cities. Most have no plans to go back to their hometowns. However, because they lack urban household registrations, they are still considered rural residents. Also because of that, they do not receive equal treatment when it comes to accessing medical and educational services. Sometimes longtime urban residents discriminate against them, which adds to their unhappiness.

Dong Jun's (second from left) Power Bass D Worker Band performs in Hong Kong at the same event where Sun Heng appeared. (Oxfam)

This new generation places a lot of hope in cities. In reality, they end up with little and get disappointed. Shenzhen is a key destination for migrant workers, mostly young ones. Power Bass D Worker Band, a group based in Shenzhen, has an intimate understanding of their lives. They understand that workers crave social interaction and need cultural activities. One of their songs, titled “Shenzhen, Shenzhen”, has struck a chord among workers in the city with the following lyrics:

The years pass one after the other
And I change one job for another
The amount I earn never amounts to much
But I have accumulated fistfuls of grievances

Shenzhen, oh Shenzhen,
Are you still the Shenzhen of my heart?
Or are you just a stop along the way?
When I leave you, where will I go?

Moving melodies and lyrics create strong feelings in the ears of the listener. Eight million Shenzhen residents do not hold household registrations in the city. The song “Shenzhen, Shenzhen”, which was adapted from a song called “Beijing, Beijing”, expresses the sorrow that workers feel in constantly drifting. Dong Jun, leader of the Power Bass D Worker Band and once a worker, says the wages most of them receive are enough only to prevent them from starving. With these salaries, workers cannot hope to buy homes. Faced with an unfair system, they feel an even greater sense of rootlessness.

With Oxfam’s support, the New Workers Art Troupe and New Power Bass D Worker Band give the workers cultural activities to look forward to. The troupe, for example, created the Spring Festival Gala. Migrant workers might be portrayed as rootless, but we believe that they are people and should have respect and joy in their lives. These musical and cultural activities not only allow the workers to express themselves. They also allow society to hear their voices and encourage the workers to support each other, become more aware of their identity, and seek a better life.