A 48-year-old construction worker, who goes by the name of Ning Dalin, is currently working in underground Wangfujing, a downtown area of Beijing, which features shopping malls, luxury hotels, and large flows of people.
Ning, who currently works on the third-stage of construction on the Beijing Metro Line 8, has been involved in four subway construction projects in the city since 2009. He also holds the head position of leading a standardization operation team at the China Railway 16th Bureau Group.
According to a report by The Beijing News, 8.25 million people used the Beijing metro service each day in 2016. Without the contributions of workers, such as Ning, the underground service would be nowhere near as impressive.
Ning, who spoke to chinadaily.com.cn on April 15, said one of the first steps construction workers make, when digging in the subway, is building “ventilation, water and electricity systems”.
“That is what my duty is,” he said.
As the project advances, Ning then checks the water pipes, high-pressure air ducts and electrical systems in the subway tunnel. He said the job takes about 40 minutes and, most times, workers do the job alone in the dark.
“I don’t feel lonely or frightened,” he said.
“I am too busy with finishing my job, checking-off my procedures, or I’m too busy being concerned with any potential problems I could face.”
Finding a sense of belonging in a job
When Ning spoke to chinadaily.com.cn on April 15, 2017, the construction worker confirmed he was introduced to the job, working on building Beijing metro, by a friend, but said accepting the position was initially nothing more than just being transitional.
Ning was born in a small village at Xianghe county, Langfang city of North China’s Hebei province, and dropped out of his first year of high school. He had a long occupational history, working in construction and maintenance.
Before he started working in the underground, Ning ran a small business during the 1990s; however, transitioned into making a living by doing the odd job here and there after having a failed investment.
“Then I found my current job,” he said.
“I didn’t regard it as a long-term career at that time, because the company only paid about 1,800 yuan a month at the beginning, and that was very low.”
On top of the pay, Ning recalled the poor working environment when he started in underground construction, and said he constantly suffered chapped facial skin during the summer while conducting electric welding work.
“There was no enclosed facility back then, so the tunnel, which was full of holes, was frozenly cold in the winter, and was hot and muggy in summer,” he said.
“Also, because we did not use any dust removal equipment, the first thing we had to do after work each day was washing our noses, and then we could go for dinner.”
While Ning did not believe he would be working underground for more than a year and a half, he has been there eight years and does not see himself changing careers anytime soon.
“As an honest, hardworking person, I feel a sense of achievement every time I finish a task,” he said.
The gratification brought by the job maximized when Ning takes the subway built by him. “I was involved in the early construction of Beijing Metro Line 10, and when my co-workers and I heard the line was open in 2013 — while we were dining at a restaurant — we rushed to the subway station to take a ride. “
“We were very excited.”
Ning further confirmed the leadership of the company was another reason why he stayed.
“The people are responsible, kind and thoughtful,” he said.
“Especially my project manager; he is only in his thirties, and teaches and inspires me a lot.”
Ning has also since learned a variety of skills from the job, which he started in maintenance work.
“Now I can handle spray-painting, wall building and tiling,” he said.
“The electronic screen hanging on the entrance of our construction site is one of my ‘masterpieces’.”
Speaking of a popular saying among other workers of the project — “If you have trouble, just go for Ning”, Ning feels proud. “I guess it is because I have worked here for a long time and am well-experienced so people can depend on me.”
Xiao Yang, an engineer who has been working with Ning for years, said his colleague’s efficiency and frankness impressed him daily.
Ning said: “If you have been on a job for years, you will have a kind of loyalty to your company and colleagues. For new comers, most times they just do what they are told; for me, I feel there are many other things I should concern about. I have developed my own responsibility.”
From poor-educated migrant worker to motivated self-learner
While Ning has struggle with not having a college degree throughout his working life, he has been given the chance to study in his current role, with the help and influence of his current project manager.
“Wang Haimin, my project manager, impresses me a lot with his profound knowledge,” he said.
“He is also from a rural village.”
“During our lunch breaks, I often read news stories, books or even WeChat subscriptions.”
“I have realized there is a lot of information about machines and our work on the internet.”
The labor resource dilemma
As Ning enjoys his job and is the backbone of his family, he said he would like to continue his position for at least another decade.
Ning earns about 200 yuan each day and believed his physical condition would be good enough to continue on, despite the company’s regulations of not hiring migrant workers aged 55-years and above.
Zhang Shengchu, head security of the company, said the company prefers to hire migrants under the age of 50, with a maximum of 55 years, as the labor is hard.
“For workers, like Ning, who still want to do their role after the age of 55, they will have to switch over and become cleaners,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it means their salaries will decrease, but it’s because the construction workers are paid relatively well now.”
Zhang also said he held concern for the future of the company, in regards to its employees, as a majority of the workers are in their late forties.
“Young people are not willing to do this job,” he said.
“Even though they will make considerable money, it is still going to be hard work.”
“It seems they would rather to be a security guard or trucker.”
Xiao, the engineer, said he has also noticed the aging “trend”.
“Even though the working environment has improved significantly, the work is still very hard, especially in the less-mechanized underground digging project,” he said.
“We often discuss who will do the job after Ning’s generation retires.”
“I guess the labor dilemma can force the process of mechanization.”
Ning, who also commented on the issue, said he did not worry about whether if he could keep his job after the age of 55 or if his work would be replaced by machines.
“I had not really thought that far ahead,” he said.
“I believe there will be no problem as long as you have a strong inner strength and body.”
“I just hope all of the construction workers, like me, can do their jobs safely and happily, so they can take good care of their families.”