When I learned that China recently held a high-profile trial for a food industry worker who poisoned frozen dumplings, I did a double take.
In 2011, during my year of teaching in northern China, I bought lots of frozen dumplings for quick meals at home. I also bought them steamed, fried, and soup-filled, everywhere from tiny two-table food stalls to high end hotels. They were ubiquitous.
Needless to say, I felt a connection to the story to begin with. Then I learned that the whole fiasco grew out of a temporary worker’s discontent. It seems the complaints of exploited temp workers are universal: low pay, lack of recognition, inequality that drags on for years due to a rather arbitrary label.
Understandable woes, but here’s how Lü Yueting handled things:
In late 2007, the cook entered the refrigeration storehouses of the food plant where he had worked as a “temp” for 15 years, armed with a syringe. He proceeded to inject six to nine packages of dumplings with the pesticide methamidophos, albeit “mixed with plenty of water.” Bizarrely, his idea was not to “intentionally harm.”
In the following months, the tainted dumplings were distributed within the northern Chinese province of Hebei and sold to Japan. All told, 13 people fell ill after ingesting the chemical-laden food, including a 5-year-old Japanese girl who was hospitalized.
Though apologetic, Yueting spoke plainly about his motivation. The whole thing was supposed to be a diversion. After the fateful packages were distributed near and far, Yueting wrote three anonymous warnings to the company. He planned to unleash his bottled-up grievances and secure a pay raise during the inevitable investigation, but management failed to act -- and he didn't come forward.
“I waited and waited. I thought I had worked for the company for so long and deserved more incentives. I hoped the manager could pay attention to people like me," he said at the trial, which is still awaiting a verdict.
Yueting was obviously deluded; instead of neutral attention, he was arrested. On top of that, the entire plant promptly shut down, laying off 1,300 innocent workers.
What he did isn't excusable (or even logical), but imagine feeling the need to cause mayhem just to secure a one-on-one chat with your boss. Granted, this is China, which isn't known for workplace safety or fairness, but it's getting better: they've already passed a law enacting the principle of "equal pay for equal work." Could this happen anywhere? It's a sobering thought, and one that calls for better communication. Surely that's as important as legislation.