By Jasmin Sun
For the past four years, Tong Ping Fang has worked diligently at Lin Wei Meng Tools, Ltd., a wrench factory in the rural village of Xiejiaqiao, spending up to 10 hours a day cutting steel posts into blocks. Her job is one of the first of many steps needed to create the 4 million Duralast wrenches to be distributed each year to various countries around the world, including the United States.
Two months ago, the hands that produced the wrenches with assembly line efficiency to support her two daughters and pay for her newly remodeled two-story house began to itch. Soon afterward, hives covered her face, eventually causing the skin to peel. After several inconclusive visits to the village clinic, blood tests at a nearby Lin’an county hospital diagnosed Tong’s skin issues to be the result of a severe allergic reaction—one most likely caused by her constant handling of steel and inhalation of the potentially harmful fumes ever present in the factory.
Tong has since left the wrench factory, but Lin Wei’s 24 other employees continue to work longer-than-reported hours for a maximum of 100 RMB ($15) a day. The job is dangerous: most workers handle molten steel without the protection of face masks or safety goggles.
Despite the unfavorable situation, a visit to the factory will reveal more smiles than frowns on the workers’ faces. Some even see their jobs as some of the most stable and highest paying in Xiejiaqiao.
“I’ve been able to double my family’s total income by working at the factory,” says Xie Xue Lian, who has been boxing wrenches for the past four years. Before she started the job, her family’s sole income came from picking and selling the pecans that grow in the mountains near their home for about 20,000 yuan ($3,077).
While agriculture and construction jobs may in some instances offer higher salaries than those at Lin Wei, the town’s frequent rains spell unwanted days off and consequently, lost income. However at the wrench factory, “You’re never forced to take a day off because of the rain,” says Xie.
For older workers, the extra income comes second to simply having something to do. With her son away working in nearby Lin’an and her husband retired, “I was getting bored at home,” explains Jin Juhua, who has been working at the factory for four years.
According to Xiejiaqiao Mayor Mo Yi Yang, the village has enjoyed a trend of sweeping home remodels, with older wood and concrete buildings giving way to shining, two-story, finished-brick versions. While some impoverished and lower-income villagers were given 15,000 RMB ($2,308) for such renovations, others like Xie and Tong took on factory jobs to pay the remodeling fees.
Before her allergic reaction became too severe for her to continue working, Tong’s wrench factory paycheck allowed her to support her two daughters while simultaneously remodeling and refurnishing her home. In fact, the money was enough motivation for her to continue working in the factory for a full 20 days after her symptoms initially appeared.
Similar situations are common among remaining workers, who, for a higher salary, seem all too happy to ignore the health hazards that come with working ungloved and unmasked in a dimly lit, smoke-filled environment.
“The wrench factory provides insurance for us,” says Wang Yang, who at 19 years old is the plant’s youngest worker, “but no one actually knows how much it is for. I’ve personally never even thought about it because I can take home a pretty easy 20,000 RMB (about $3,077) every year for my family.”