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Chinese Factories Build Troubled Relationships

Lizhi Jiang was born in Yongzhou, Hunan Province in 1987. His wife, Qifeng Jiang, was born in Yongzhou, Hunan Province in 1987 and works in as a factory accountant. Their son is two years old, and they plan to bring him to Shanghai from their hometown. The family bought a house in Yongzhou and want to buy a car. Jiang hopes they both can work in the same company. Photo by Jia Daitengfei/ Getty Images.

China’s new generation of migrant workers has been the driving force behind the country’s rapid urbanization, but while the 240 million-strong workforce has aspirations for an urban lifestyle, they struggle to balance demanding jobs and family relationships. And they hesitate to call the city “home.”

For his project, ‘Love on the Assembly Line’ photographer Jia Daitengfei documented the lives of several young suburban Shanghai factory workers — most of whom were born after 1990. A few days before Valentine’s Day, he asked them how difficult it was to maintain a relationship. He then returned six months later to see how each worker’s lives had changed.

According to the South China Morning Post, China’s migrant workers feel like “outsiders,” despite working in a city for years. As non-local residents, migrant workers don’t have access to affordable housing and certain basic needs. Reuters also reported a slowdown in the average monthly wage for migrant workers, dropping from 21.2 percent in 2011 to 11.8 percent in 2012. And with 60 percent of the workforce born after 1980, the low wages and long hours also limit oppportunities for young workers to make romantic connections.

“[Young migrant workers] feel they are at the bottom of the society and lack security,” Daitengfei said, “but they hope to make their own efforts to gain a foothold in the city and live a decent life.”

Xue Zhang poses for a photo at Shanghai Ying Feng Industrial Co., Ltd. on February 9, 2012 in Shanghai, China. She was diagnosed with a tumor in 2012. Her husband asked for a divorce shortly afterward. Zhang’s child is being raised by her grandmother. Though Zhang doesn’t expect to meet anybody new, she hopes to buy a house in three years. Photo by Jia Daitengfei / Getty Images.

Daitengfei was taken aback because most of the workers he initially interviewed were already partnered.

“It was amazing because there was a pop word in China now called ‘leftover singles,’ which means men and women who remained singled in their 30s,” he said. “But those neotenous workers had fallen in love, got married and had kids at such a young age.”

Six months after posing in wedding clothes in Shanghai, Hong Wang, a plate worker from Zhaotong, Yunnan Province, and girlfriend Yun Niu are still unmarried. Despite being in a relationship for the past four years, their parents won’t let them marry as there is a great distance between their hometowns. Photo by Jia Daitengfei/Getty Images.

Daitengfei said rural Chinese culture pressures young workers to marry early, without careful thinking. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend, much less a family, can be financially demanding for a migrant worker living in a mainland city. Reuters reported that Chinese migrant workers earn about 1,748 Chinese yuan ($277) a month, which is half the average urban salary.

Also, paying for housing on that salary proves difficult, Daitengfei said, which is why a few of the married couples he interviewed couldn’t afford to raise their children on their own. They sent their children back to the countryside to live with their parents. According to the Morning Post, one of the main sources of happiness for migrant workers was close proximity to their children.

And although senior leaders have promised to look after their welfare, migrant workers face a rigid household registration system — known as ‘Hukou’ — that denies them access to social benefits such as health care, unemployment and access to better local schools for their children. Daitengfei said the government is slow to act to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and interests.

With all that in mind, six months later, Daitengfei returned to stories of separated families, love lost and loneliness. But why shoot wedding portraits in an environment that reminds these workers of their alienation?

Zhimin Lin pose for a photo on August 23, 2012 in Shanghai, China. Her husband Guanfu Chen has started a new job with an increased salary, but it means they can no longer live together. Photo by Jia Daitengfei/Getty Images.

For one, Daitengfei said it was a matter of convenience. Factory workers couldn’t devote too much time away from the factory. Otherwise, it would have affected their hourly pay. And since wedding portraits are too expensive for a migrant worker’s salary, Daitengfei shot them for free. Ultimately, Daitengfei saw the factory as the perfect setting for lives that are “like products on the assembly line.”

Amid urban estrangement, “the young migrant workers see marriage just like a mission,” Daitengfei said, making some of life’s more important decisions in such a short time.

But Daitengfei hopes that the photos also reveal a better understanding about their dreams. On Valentine’s Day he gifted the photos to the workers.

“I still remember their smiles clearly now,” he said.

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