Interview with Wang Wei of the Xi’an Domestic Workers’ Union

China Development Brief no 58, Summer 2013

中文 English

It’s an early weekend morning in 2013 in the ancient city of Xi’an, and although the Commercial Building seems to be lacking its usual hustle and bustle, one of its large rooms is actually packed with women. Aged between 30 and 50 years old, some talk loudly, and some discuss whispering while others sit silently on benches. This is the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers’ Union (西安市家政工工会). Naturally, where there is a union, there is a President, and in this case it is Wang Wei, a 45-year-old, short-haired, nimble-tongued woman.Wang Wei currently has two identities: one as a home economics trainer at the Xi’an Federation of Trade Unions (西安市总工会), and the other as the President of the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers Union. During the day, she provides home economics training classes to jobseekers, and during weekends, she runs back and forth between the union’s office and her fellow domestic workers to discuss trade union matters with them. From being a laid off state-owned enterprise worker to becoming the champion of a housekeeping competition in Xi’an and President of the Xi’an Workers Union, Wang Wei’s life since she was laid off ten years ago has had ‘thousands of twists and turns’.

State-owned enterprise female worker: I was laid off

In 1986, a not yet 20-year-old Wang Wei graduated from high school, and like many other state-owned enterprise workers’ children, smoothly joined the Xi’an 3402 factory in the Lanzhou Military Logistics department (also known as the Xi’an Lishan Automobile Factory). Working within the Labor Service Company of the Lishan car seat factory, Wang Wei soon became a worker of the state owned enterprise, quickly envied by other people in that era.

Married with a daughter and a steady work routine, Wang Wei’s life would have been fully laid out before her, if she had not been laid off: “I could’ve continued working there until I retired, with nothing changing.” In 2002, after the factory changed management, and because the factory’s performance was low, Wang Wei received notice that she was to be laid off. This news caused her great pain. “I never thought that after more than 10 years’ work, the factory would suddenly not want me!” Just after being laid off, Wang Wei was not under too much pressure since her husband was still working, but two months later he was also laid off. This news made Wang Wei uneasy. “My daughter had just graduated from elementary school, and my husband and I were unemployed; how were we going to survive?” To make a living, Wang Wei went out every day and tried hard to get a job, but she found that she missed having ‘proper work’, and out of desperation tried her hand at domestic work.

The grassroots group: home of the domestic workers

Although she was able to work again, the change was a huge blow to her, she found it difficult to accept her new career. “Before, my life was bright, but now I wait upon other people.”

When she started her new work as a domestic worker, Wang Wei had still not come to terms with her new occupation, and would often cry while traveling back and forth every day from her home to her employer’s house. She would cry biking to her employer’s house, wipe her tears dry in preparation for four hours’ work, and then cry all the way home. Not daring to let her family know, she would dry her tears and put on a smile before entering the house. “Often in the middle of the night, tears would involuntarily stream down my face,” she said. It pained Wang Wei even more that her parents started to completely ignore her when they learned she became a domestic worker.

At this point, a teacher from the ‘Xizhen House Keeping Company’ (希珍家政公司) encouraged her to join Northwestern Polytechnic University’s Women’s Development and Rights Research Center (西北大学妇女发展与权益研究中心) and participate in their domestic workers’ group activities. In 2003, the Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU)’s Women’s Development and Rights Research Centre held an event called “Empowering Marginalized Female Workers”, which led to the creation of a ‘grassroots group’ for laid-off domestic workers. One of the group’s goals was to train marginalized female workers, establish a grassroots organization of marginalized females workers, realize the female workers’ right to unite and organize, fight for social resources, increase marginalized female workers’ ability to adapt to the marketplace, their vocational skills, and their ability to carry out contractual negotiation with their employers.

A deeply depressed Wang Wei joined the group and through its many activities got to know many other struggling women like her. “There were some domestic workers whose situations were far worst than mine. They were all laid off workers. During weekends, everyone got together, we had many topics in common which we would talk about and cry over – every time we met we spent time crying.” When she recalls the activities of that year, Wang Wei remembers them as vividly as ever. It is thanks to their mutual sharing, support and companionship that Wang Wei and her sisters were able to get through the most difficult period of their lives. The ‘grassroots group’ is not only a medium for providing emotional support to the women, it also offers skills development, legal rights training, training to improve domestic workers’ technical skills, as well as encouraging the understanding of domestic work’s value and providing legal support to protect domestic workers’ rights. “Like many of my other sisters, at the beginning I was unable to hold my head up high, but, through the ‘grassroots group’, we have come to understand that domestic work is a real profession.” After several months, Wang Wei hadn’t missed a single activity, she felt better and her service improved for her employer’s satisfaction. Wang Wei had also become one of the most active members of the grassroots group.

The Domestic Workers’ Union: their own organization

In the second half of 2004, the NPU project was coming to an end and its funding for the grassroots group’s activities was running out. But the domestic workers were reluctant to disperse, and teachers from the NPU’s women’s center had long been planning to continue the grassroots group. This led to the idea of establishing the grassroots group as a domestic workers’ union. With the help of the Xi’an Federation of Trade Unions’ Re-employment Service Centre (再就业服务中心), the Domestic Workers Union that had been spontaneously founded by the domestic workers became formally established on the 23rd September, 2004. Wang Wei was the first to be elected as a committee member of the Domestic Workers’ Union.

The Xi’an Federation of Trade Union’s Re-employment Service Centre gave the Domestic Workers’ Union a less than 10 square meters room for them to use as an office. The room usually functioned as both a staff canteen and a changing room, apart from Sundays when the domestic workers used it as an office. Wang Wei and her partners bought a bookcase, which was the sole property of the union at that time. The trade union was operational, but developing its activities became difficult for its members. “We had to act on our own initiative even if we did not understand how, since many of the domestic sisters had expectations of us”, says Wang Wei. “We all bought a copy of the ‘Trade Union Law’, and little by little we learned how to organize a trade union”.

On her day off, Wang Wei makes arrangements for her child, and squeezes into the borrowed office with the other members to discuss the development of the trade union. Hard work pays off, and, driven by Wang Wei and seven other members, the union took shape. Although the union is small, it is a ‘complete’ body, not only with its own leadership, but also with a comprehensive system of regulations. Wang Wei believes the union is not only a place where domestic workers can share their feelings, but more importantly where they can rebuild their confidence and improve their abilities. “I came to the trade union and realized that in this profession, skills are particularly important, and improving one’s skills means you can earn a higher income.” At the union, Wang Wei attended training for the intermediate and advanced home economics qualifications, and she also enrolled in cookery classes, among others, where she learned to prepare large feasts and pastry dishes. Wang Wei said: “My life is intertwined with the union – if I had not come to the union, how would I have learnt these things?” Through the union, Wang Wei not only improved her skills, but also participated in housekeeping competitions where she was crowned the Xi’an domestic champion.

As she continued to be engaged in domestic service work, even her parents’ attitudes gradually changed from exclusion to understanding. Many other domestic workers sisters, like Wang Wei, greatly benefitted from the domestic workers union. They participated in training and legal studies, and in times of difficulty could ask the government for help through the union. The union provided a great platform for domestic workers to help each other. Wang Wei says that the Xi’an Domestic Service Workers’ Union “gave us an identity, it is our own organization.”

Union president: the union banner cannot be lowered

In 2007, the union encountered a new problem: seven committee members who were among the founding fathers of the union, started to leave one after the other due to various pressures. “Domestic workers are a deeply underprivileged group; if we do a job slightly less well, there will be many complaints. As it is a self-run organization, committee members do not have any paid benefits, their work is all voluntary, and everyone is under great pressure”. The work that the marginalized group carries out is extremely tough, and Wang Wei can barely conceal her emotion when remembering those years.

“Election time!”

To face this situation, the Domestic Workers’ Union held a meeting and decided collectively that, even if they were a very young union (the union was founded a little more than two years before), they had to elect a new leader. “Although the reason we gave was that we wanted to train up younger members as the future backbone of the union, the reality was that we did not want the union to wither in our own hands,” Wang Wei said, stating the real reason for the leadership change.

Over two hundred people attended the election, and members casted their votes in a secret ballot. Wang Wei, who was a committee member of the union, was unanimously elected as the second Chair of the Domestic Workers’ Union for a second term, with only 2 abstained votes. “I was under great pressure, and my mind was in a muddle.” Wang Wei had taken over the trade union at a difficult time.

The union had just over 300 members, but the union’s money from membership fees was only 204 RMB. “Without money, how could I keep the union alive? I was so anxious that I could not sleep. But I knew how much the domestic workers needed this group: if one day it did not exist, there would be nowhere for them to share their woes.” Wang Wei knew that “the union banner could not be lowered”. As a result, she went to work as usual, and then to the union on weekends to organize events, recruit members, contact resources and look for support. Wang Wei said: “As long as I could think of a way to do it, at any opportunity I would look for donations. I even approached the small street-vendors selling rice noodles on the streets of Xi’an.” Through Wang Wei’s hard work and with the support of scholars from the NPU, the Xi’an Domestic Workers’ Union finally overcame their most difficult period.“2009 saw an improvement in trade union development, and due to increasingly good work, the number of members paying membership fees also increased, the group was able to attract far more people, and that year, the union increased in size to over eight hundred members,” Wang Wei proudly recalls.

The Domestic Workers Union: maintain our development and maintain our stand

In October 2011, with the support of the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women (北京农家女文化发展中心), the Xi’an Domestic Workers’ Union finally got their own office, and the sisters had a stable location for their activities.

The union started with 162 members and today counts over 1,500. Although the Union was well established, Wang Wei still felt uneasy. The huge growth of the trade union brought new issues, and many of these issues had to do with a work-related accident of one of the union members.

Yan Yali, one of the oldest members of the union, was a widowed single parent and relied on the income she made from domestic service work to provide for her child and parents. Unable to bear the mocking she received as a housekeeper, she went to work in a laundry mill at a military hospital. Not long after she started work, she had an accident while operating machinery and severed four fingers of her right hand from the middle joint. After being treated at that hospital, the injured area gradually became infected and the infection spread down her fingers. The limited facilities and low standards of the military hospital meant that she risked of having her hand amputated if she continued receiving treatment there. But, if she transferred to another hospital, the military hospital would refuse to pay the medical expenses. The trade union actively assisted her family at negotiations with the hospital. Eventually the military hospital let her transfer to another hospital and agreed to pay a certain amount of the medical expenses in order to save her right hand. “This incident had a huge impact on me. In order to transfer Yan to the other hospital for treatment as soon as possible, we made a lot of compromises, and Yan had to bear most of the medical expenses herself, which was really heartbreaking,” said Wang Wei. Yan Yali’s accident made Wang Wei realize how particularly vulnerable domestic workers are, as there are no specific laws to protect their rights.

Furthermore, as the workers’ union is self-organized, they face problems such as a lack of funding, lack of staffing, and are limited in their capacity to bargain and make agreements. “Trade unions should develop a greater role in people’s lives, but to do this they need to develop the necessary skills which requires resources”. To Wang Wei, this is a major contradiction: in the current environment, to have more funding could mean a loss of independence. But, if the union relied on the collection of membership fees, they would be able to operate independently, and be in a position to safeguard and give a voice to the rights and interests of domestic workers.

Wang Wei is also aware that a fully functioning, self-organized union of workers is very difficult to achieve. “It is highly possible that one day the union might not have an office, and the volunteer staff might not come to work, in which case the union would collapse.” Having been Chair of the Union for the past few years, Wang Wei has these worries from time to time. The 55-year-old retired laid-off worker Liu Guoli used to be a member of the domestic workers’ union, and she was also the only member who came to do union work every day. “Much of the work of the trade union fell to Liu, who is now retired and has a pension. She’s not concerned about income, but if she didn’t do the union work, who else would? Everyone has their own lives to look after too.” In order to maintain the independent operation of the union, Wang Wei rejected the funding that was at her fingertips.

She now faces three major problems: firstly, finding a way to fundraise and finance the union’s operations; secondly, the difficulty of carrying out projects due to the lack of staffing and particular skills within the union; and thirdly, finding a way to raise public awareness, increase the influence of the union, reach out to a larger number of domestic workers, and let them know of the importance of unionizing. “To successfully run the domestic workers’ group, we must solve these three difficulties”. Wang Wei has experienced great ups-and-downs in her own life, and although the development of the domestic workers’ union brings her great pressure, she still feels confident about its future. “This is our own organization, and we will rely on our own strength to make it good!”


2013年一个周末的清晨,古城西安,商业大厦没了平日的喧嚣,而大厦中一处30多平米的房间里却挤满了人。她们年龄不等,从30多岁到50多岁,有大声说话的,有小声议论的,有坐在板凳上默默不语的……这里就是西安市家政工工会。有工会自然有工会主席,她就是王葳,45岁,一位剪着短发、说话利索的女性。 王葳现在有两个身份,一个是西安市总工会的家政培训老师,另一个则是西安市家政工工会主席。工作日,她是培训师,给正在找工作的家政工授课,每到周末,她就跑到家政工工会办公室与家政姐妹一起商量工会里的事情。 从国企下岗女工到西安市家政状元,再到西安家政工工会主席,王葳的经历可谓是千折百转,而这一切要从十年前那场“下岗”说起。


1986年,不到20岁的王葳高中毕业,与很多国企职工子女一样,王葳顺利地进入了兰州军区后勤部西安3402工厂(又名:西安骊山汽车制造厂)下设的劳动服务公司骊山汽车座椅厂,当上了人人羡慕的工人。 结婚生女,上班下班,如果没有下岗这件事,王葳的生活按部就班,“我会在这个厂一直待到退休,不会有任何变化。”2002年,军队工厂转地方管理后,王葳所在的工厂因效益不好,王葳被通知待岗休息,此时她的心里发了慌,“从来都没有想到待了十几年的厂子突然不要你了!” 刚下岗的时候,王葳并没有多少压力,毕竟家里老公还在工作。可两个月后,老公也下岗了,这让王葳有些坐不住了,“女儿刚刚小学毕业,我跟我老公都失业了, 这往后的日子可咋过呀?”为了生计,王葳只好天天往外跑,可是她发现,理想中的“体面工作”都和她无缘,无奈之下,她抱着试试的心态干起了家政。


虽然做起了家政服务的工作,可对王葳来说,这种巨大的生活落差让她一时很难面对自己的职业,“无论我以前多风光,可现在却干上了伺候人的活”。做家政工最初的那段时间,王葳心里的落差无法疏解,每天往返在从雇主家到自家的一条宽阔马路上,经常是一边骑车一边哭,一路哭到雇主家,擦干眼泪干四个小时的活;回 来哭声依旧,还不敢让家里人知道,进家门前,再次把脸上的泪擦干,笑脸进门。“我经常在半夜一个人不自觉眼泪就流下来了”,她说。 更让王葳痛苦万分的是父母得知她做家政服务后对她不理不睬的态度。就在这时,希珍家政公司的一位老师鼓励王葳去参加西北工业大学妇女发展与权益研究中心组织的家政工小组活动。 2003年,西北工业大学妇女发展与权益研究中心举办了“边缘女劳工赋权”培训并成立了下岗家政小组,被家政工称为“草根小组”。其宗旨之一是培养边缘女工中的骨干,建立妇女边缘就业群体的草根组织,实现女工的团结权、组织权,争取社会资源,增加边缘劳工市场适应、职业技能以及劳动谈判和协议的能力。 情绪极度低落的王葳参加了这个小组,通过活动结识了许多和她一样处境艰难的家政姐妹,“有一些家政工的状况比我更糟糕。都是下岗的,一到周末大家就聚在一 起,有共同的话题,一聊就哭,每次都哭成一片。”说起当年的活动现场,王葳历历在目。可正是有了这种互相倾诉、彼此支持的陪伴,王葳和姐妹们度过了她们人 生中最艰难的时期。 “草根小组”不仅是提供给家政姐妹情感支持的平台,还开设技能发展、法律维权等培训,提高家政工的服务技能、鼓励重新认识家政职业价值以及提供法律支持维 护家政工权益。“我和好多姐妹一样,一开始就觉得抬不起头来,但是在‘草根小组’,我们都明白了家政工就是一份职业。”几个月下来,王葳没有落下一次活动,心情舒畅了,服务水平提高了,雇主也满意。王葳也成了“草根小组”的骨干。


2004年下半年,西工大的项目就要结束了,眼看着没有资金继续支持草根小组的活动,但是家政工姐妹都不愿散去,西工大妇女中心的老师们也很早开始筹划让草根小组继续维持下去,于是大家就有了成立家政工工会的想法。 在西安总工会再就业服务中心的帮助下,由家政工自发成立的家政工工会于2004年9月23日正式挂牌宣告成立,王葳作为发起人当选第一届家政工工会委员。 西安市总工会再就业服务中心把一间不足10平米的房间拿出来给家政工工会做办公点,这间屋子平时是职工饭堂和更衣室兼用,一到周日家政工工会就用来办公,王葳与伙伴们买了一个书柜,这是工会当时唯一的财产。 工会是搞起来了,可是怎么运作和发展成了委员们的难事,王葳说:“不懂我们也得干呀,那么多家政姐妹都盯着呢。每人买了本《工会法》,一点一点学习怎么组织工会。”一到休息天,王威把孩子安顿一下,就和其他委员挤在借来的办公室里商量工会怎么发展。 功夫不负有心人,在王葳等七个委员的带动下,工会变得有模有样。工会虽小,“五脏俱全”,不但有领导班子,还制定了各种规章制度。王葳认为工会不仅是家政 姐妹互诉感情的地方,更重要的是要让家政姐妹能够找到自信,提高自身能力。“我来工会就发现家政这个行业技能特别重要,技能提高了,收入就高了。”王葳在 工会参加了中级、高级的家政资格培训,还报名参加家宴班、面点班等各种家政培训课程。 王葳说:“我的成长离不开工会,如果我不来工会我怎么能知道这些消息呢?”通过工会,王葳不但技能大涨,还参加家政行业技能大赛,获得西安市家政状元。对她从事家政服务,父母也逐渐从排斥转为理解。 而其他的家政姐妹也和王葳一样受惠于家政工工会,参加家政技能培训和法律学习;遇到困难就通过家政工工会向政府和上级申请救助;家政姐妹之间也在工会这个大平台上互帮互助。“有了工会我们就有了靠山,工会是我们自己的组织”,王葳这样评价西安家政工工会。


2007年,工会遇到了新的问题,最早发起的七个工会委员迫于各种压力陆续离开。“家政工是个很贫困的群体,稍微处理不好,就有抱怨。而我们工会是一个自 发组织,根本没有任何福利。委员们的付出都是志愿性的,大家的压力都很大。”边缘群体的工作开展起来十分艰难,提起当年的困难,王葳现在还难以掩饰内心的激动。

“换届!” 家政工工会开会集体做出了决定。按照惯例工会换届都要三到五年,可是一个刚成立不到三年的工会组织怎么就想到更换领导班子了呢?“虽说是为了培养年轻骨干,但是实际上大家心里都清楚,谁都不希望工会‘死’在自己手上。”王葳道出了真正换届的原因。 换届选举会共有200多人参加,全体会员无记名投票。时任西区区长、家政工会组织委员的王葳最终以两票弃权、其余全票通过的投票结果当选为第二届家政工工会主席。 “我的压力也大,心里也很纠结。”王葳刚接手的工会正处于困难时期,有300多个会员,可全部会费加在一起也就204块。“没钱工会咋活呀?我愁得都睡不着觉。但我知道家政姐妹需要这个组织,如果有一天没有家政工工会,大家连个诉苦的地方都没了。”王葳知道“工会这杆旗子不能倒”。 于是,她平时上班,周末就往工会跑,组织活动、招募会员;联络资源、寻求援助。王葳说:“只要能想的办法我都去做了,一有机会我就去找人捐款,连西安街上卖凉皮的小老板我都找过。” 在王葳的努力下,加上西工大学者的支持,西安家政工工会终于渡过了最艰难的时期。“2009年开始,工会发展的越来越好,服务做好了,缴会费的会员也多了。这个群体对大家的吸引力也大了,当年工会就有了800多个会员。”王葳自豪地说。


2011年10月,在北京农家女文化发展中心的支持下,西安家政工工会终于有了一间独立办公室,姐妹们也有了稳定的活动场所。工会从最初成立的162名会员,发展到现在的1500多名会员。 工会发展起来了,可王葳觉得心里还是不踏实。在陪伴工会成长的过程中,她也看到工会存在的新问题,而这个担心和一名会员的工伤事故有关。 闫雅莉是工会的老会员,丧偶单亲母亲,原本依靠做家政的收入来供养父母和小孩,因无法忍受做家政时受到的冷言冷语,她去了一家军医院洗衣班工作。上班不久,她的右手四指就被剪衣机从中间关节齐齐切断。在这家医院治疗后,手指受伤部位逐渐向下溃烂,但军医院医疗水平有限,继续在这家医院治疗就有截肢的风 险;而一旦转院,军医院将拒绝支付医药费。 工会积极协助家属持续同医院谈判交涉,最终这家军医院同意转院并支付一定的医药费,让闫雅莉的右手得以保全。 “这个事情对我的影响很大,为了尽快转院治疗,当时我们做了很多的妥协,闫雅莉个人还承担了大部分医疗费,真是让人痛心。”王葳介绍道。 闫雅莉的工伤事故让王葳意识到,家政工是一个特别弱势贫困的群体,国家没有专门的法律保护家政工劳动权益。而工会又是家政工工人自组织,组织化的过程面临很多的问题,资金不足、人力匮乏、集体谈判和协议的能力有限。 “工会要发挥更大的作用,就要在组织化发展上下工夫,这都需要资源。”这让王葳很矛盾,在当前的环境中,要资源就可能失去家政工工人组织的独立性。如果工会靠收取会员会费支持,就能独立运作保证工会在家政工权益维护上的立场,能为家政工发声和维权。 她也深知,一个完全由工人自组织的运作是非常艰难的,“很可能有一天工会办公室没了,志愿者人员不来值班了,工会真得就垮了。”任工会主席的这几年,王葳还会时不时冒出这种担忧。 55岁的退休下岗女工刘果莉曾是家政工一员,也是家政工工会唯一的日常值班人员,王葳说:“工会的具体工作都落在果莉身上,现在果莉退休了,有退休金,不计较报酬,但她要是不能干了,谁来干?大家都要有自己的生活。” 但为了保持家政工工会的独立运作,王葳还是拒绝了那些送上门来的资源。而摆在王葳面前的有三大难题也更为严峻:一是工会的筹资方式与运作资金来源;二是惠及家政工的项目由于能力和人力不足难以启动;三是如何在更大的范围内让公众知晓、让家政工知晓工会,提高工会的影响力,让更多家政工能知晓加入工会的意义。 “要办好这个家政工的组织,这是我们必须要解决的困难。”历经人生大起大落的王葳虽然觉得家政工工会的发展压力很大,但是她仍充满信心,“这是我们自己的组织,就要靠我们自己的力量去做好!”


The author works on domestic workers’ rights, and used to be the editor of the Sina Weibo account @家政工那些事 (@domesticworkersissues). She is also the founder of the ‘One Yuan Commune’ (一元公社) and producer of Leimin Video Studio.

Translated by Sophie Chadd

Reviewed by Yuan Yang

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