Demand for higher wages and better conditions put the spotlight on China’s young labor pool. Despite concessions, many believe they deserve more and move from one factory to the next.
At first blush, China’s current crop of blue-collar employees seems to have it better than predecessors. Monthly salaries are being raised, the living and working environment is being improved, and some companies are even providing facilities such as Internet access.
Not so, according to the young production staff.
Migrant hands are considered to be in the lowest socioeconomic level. Although monthly salaries have been raised to as much as 2,000 yuan ($295) in recent months, factories are cutting overtime hours drastically while boosting the daily yield requirement. This is resulting in lower take home pay that is often just enough to cover day-to-day expenses.
In many cases, 10 people share one dormitory room, resulting in little or no privacy especially for couples. Hot water is available, but only for a limited period of time.
The Institute for Contemporary Observation director Liu Kaiming agrees it is not easy being a young worker today. Although conditions were worse 20 years ago, workers then were better compensated and had higher than average annual income. A university professor, for instance earned between 200 and 500 yuan ($29.50 to $73.80) per month, while a civil servant received roughly 500 yuan. The minimum wage of a factory worker in Shenzhen or Dongguan, Guangdong province, was at least 200 yuan. Including overtime, take home pay reached 500 yuan each month.
The younger set, however, is much more mobile and less willing to just bite the bullet. They quit their current positions and move as soon as they find factories offering better compensation and benefits, even if these are just free dinners, Internet access or basketball courts. Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association chairman Danny Lau said at his production facility, almost one-third or more than a hundred personnel fit the bill, a typical young worker who does not stay long at one plant and moves from one factory to another.
Not only are these employees quick to take advantage of better opportunities, they are also much more flexible in terms of where to go. They do not limit themselves to a certain city or province and relocate to wherever the higher-paying jobs are.
Many of the skilled hands at Ningbo Boda Bags Co. Ltd, for instance, came from Guangdong. They moved to Zhejiang because living expenses in the province are 10 to 25 percent lower than in the southern coast. Public security in Ningbo is said to be better than in Guangzhou or Dongguan.
Less savory reasons
Bad pay and conditions are not the only factors driving workers away from their posts. Sometimes, personality issues come into play. Unlike the older generation, the new breed is not as even-tempered and is more prone to engage in fights and raise objections.
“You do not know when you will hear about premarital pregnancies and then you have to deal with that,” said David Wang, sales manager of Topkin Intl Enterprises Co. Ltd. Wang used to run a factory for tiffany lamps and bronze sculptures, but found it tiresome and energy consuming. He has since sold the plant and now focuses on trading.
Lau said some workers quit their jobs because their boyfriends and girlfriends did so.
In addition, China Center for Labor and Environment project manager David Abrahamson believes the younger set is impatient. Although most render overtime, it is hard for many to focus on assembly work all the time. Boredom alone may be sufficient reason for some to look for newer opportunities. For others, being constantly monitored and reprimanded for mistakes can send them packing.
“I could not stand being watched by the QC inspector and yelled at for a small mistake,” said Huang Yemei, a former factory worker in Dongguan.
It is now common for a plant to be 10 to 30 percent short of hands all the time because of the constant high turnover of young employees.
Desire for growth
Ding Zhihing, a lecturer at the Central University of Finance and Economics’ sociology department, did his own research on China’s rural migrant workers. Published in the Lanzhou Academic Journal in 2009, the study revealed that more than 70 percent of the country’s 229 million migrants have at least finished junior high school. More than two-thirds of the labor pool is between the ages of 16 and 30 years old.
Because the majority has a higher educational attainment, they are often deemed more knowledgeable than the previous generation. Lau of Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association said such employees also learn faster, need much less time to master required skills, understand training manuals easily and can learn new technologies on their own.
Moreover, they are better-versed in obtaining information via mobile phones and the Internet.
These strengths make them more attractive to companies. “The older guys come with too many bad practices and they refuse to change,” said Gordon Styles, managing director of Star Prototype China Ltd. “Also, their techniques are poor.”
The reverse is true, however, for some mature industries such as garments and crafts, where older workers are much more appreciated for their time-honed skills.
But better educational attainment comes with a caveat. Now, the younger set is pursuing opportunities and responsibilities that can help in achieving long-term goals, which go beyond sending money back to their families. An e-commerce student, Huang left her assembly line job in Dongguan to look for sales-related positions in Shenzhen.
Abrahamson said these talented younger workers have greater ambitions. They usually will not work in the same factory for more than two years. Instead, they will try to take advantage of the skills and experience they have gained to look for other promising occupations, including secretarial and sales positions. Some even open their own business.
Moreover, China Labour Bulletin editor Geoffrey Crothall believes the new generation of migrants wants to settle down in the cities where they hold jobs and not in their hometowns. Many are hoping to earn enough money to be able to afford a house, send their children to school and have a comfortable life.
Unlike in previous years, career-oriented workers can find factory jobs that offer internal and external training. Although there is a slim chance those that undergo training will be promoted to a management position, giving employees hope that they can climb up the career ladder is important.
But such opportunities are not as widespread. “Employers see no value in training people only to lose them,” Styles said. He does not subscribe to this view though, and gives English lessons to his personnel twice a week. Star Prototype also has foreign specialists providing technical training and supervision on site.
A young worker’s perspective
Born in 1988 in the city of Yangjiang in southwest Guangdong province, Huang Yemei is but one of the many young denizens at the Luohu Job Market in Shenzhen. Despite the heat, she braved the crowded hall in the hopes of finding work from the roughly 100 booths, a position that would at least match her credentials. Huang is, after all, an e-commerce graduate from the Yangjiang Technical School.
Wearing a light yellow T-shirt, she sat with a couple of young women of similar age, chatting with them, a PVC file containing a few copies of her CV on the table.
“Unless I have to, I think I will not work as an assembler again,” Huang said, having held similar jobs in Huizhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen in the past. She found working in the factories depressing and did not like being berated by the line leaders even for small mistakes.
Living and hanging out with coworkers of the same age, however, proved to be an enjoyable experience. “We chatted, played poker, went shopping and surfed the Internet in our spare time,” Huang said. She was not thinking too much about the future then, quitting her first job assembling TV sets in a Huizhou factory simply because of friction with some colleagues.
Now, Huang feels being an assembly-line worker is not something she can do on a long-term basis, especially since doing so would not secure for her a good and comfortable life.
“Most employers are more or less the same,” she said. Some factories might offer higher wages but no board and lodging. Those that provide food and dormitories usually pay less. Others deduct the cost of meals from monthly salaries.
Huang has some friends in Shenzhen, which is why she decided to try her luck finding suitable work in the city. But Huang really has not decided where to settle down, as this depends on whether she can land a proper job.
For her, the ideal position would not require too much overtime work, and pay her enough to cover her daily expenses and still have enough to spend on other things such as clothes or travel.
But competition is tight in the job market. She believes younger workers such as herself have an edge over the older ones, as they are better educated and more eager to learn new things. Since there are a lot of them, however, her age is not necessarily an advantage.