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The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Updated: 2014-04-25 07:28
By Joseph Catanzaro and Cai Muyuan ( China Daily Africa)

 The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Workers come on shift at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Foxconn workers on the sports field inside the factory complex.  Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Li Guizhen (right) overseas mold production inside Foxconn factory. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Foxconn employees on the factory floor in Shenzhen. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

It's 8 am in Shenzhen, and outside Foxconn, the better part of the mega-factory's 160,000 employees are coming on or off shift.

Young men and women stream through security checkpoints.

The grounds are neatly manicured. There are two Olympic-sized swimming pools and a sports field. Tree-lined streets full of restaurants, banks and mobile phone retailers break up the blocks of utilitarian buildings where production lines churn out iPhones and iPods and computers for the world.

In one corner of the compound, there's a cluster of apartment blocks, home to some 40,000 employees. Laundry hung out to dry flutters on the balconies.

There is a hospital and a fire brigade, a canteen that serves 16,000 people at each sitting. There is a building with a "therapy room" decorated in bright colors, where workers can sit and stare at stickers of cavorting butterflies, or a painting of a stag with bouquets of flowers sprouting from its antlers. Across the hall, there is a call center where operators man a counseling help line for employees. At 8.30 am, they are busy.

Part factory, part city, this is the rarely-seen world inside Foxconn's China headquarters.

Since 2010, when global media attention was focused on the company following a spate of attempted suicides, the manufacturing giant has rightly or wrongly been held up as a weathervane for working conditions in China.

But be it through corporate confidentiality, or the barriers of culture and language and distance, much about the professional and private lives of Chinese workers remains a mystery even today.

Five years after Time magazine named the Chinese worker runner-up in its annual Person of the Year award, this special May Day edition of China Daily takes readers inside Foxconn and behind closed doors of businesses across the nation, for a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people driving the world's second-largest economy.

And the latest figures from China's National Bureau of Statistics show those lives are changing dramatically.

Nothing gleams in building E5, an open hangar-like space with concrete floors. This is not one of the massive production lines where workers assemble shiny finished products for Apple, HP, Nokia, IBM, Samsung, Amazon, Sony and Dell.

Much of the work here is done with tools, by hand. Suggested in the shapes of casts and molds is the secretive anatomy of the world's smart phones and tablets. The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Li Guizhen, 32, watches over a row of silent women in pink jackets. They delicately pick at components with tiny implements.

Like the vast majority of Foxconn employees, Li is a migrant worker, one of almost 269 million men and women in China who have left their hometown temporarily or permanently to work in the nation's cities and manufacturing centers.

A devout Muslim and father of two, Li is about 3,000 kilometers from the farm in Xinjiang where he grew up. Beyond geography, the distance can be measured in years and money and lifestyle, a journey from poverty to the doorstep of China's burgeoning middle class.

"When I was a little kid my father was a farmer and we were very poor," Li says. Now, as a manager in the mold-making production area, he earns more in two months than his father made in an entire year as a farmer.

In another part of the compound, somewhere on the factory line, 21-year-old Jiang Caixia dutifully checks the backs of iPhones for scratches. "I check about 260 per hour, she says. "I check more than 2,000 phones per day." The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Sometimes when Jiang has finished an eight or 10-hour shift and is watching TV, the young migrant worker from Jiangxi province sees the things she has made, in countries she has never been, used by people she has never met, who know nothing about how her life intersected briefly with pieces of their everyday world.

"When I look at other people using iPhones, I think to myself, I probably made that one."

Jiang is an avid fan of South Korean TV dramas. She loves reading. She misses her aging parents, but says her life was "going nowhere" back home. The best she could have hoped for was a job in a supermarket.

Turn the clock forward a decade or so, and Jiang might be Sun Xiaoji, the woman sitting next to her outside the "Foxconn Cafe".

The daughter of humble farmers, Sun finished high school about 16 years ago and left her hometown in Hubei province to work on the Foxconn production line.

"At that time, there wasn't much opportunity in my hometown," Sun says. "I was a worker like Jiang Caixia."

In many ways, 36-year-old Sun represents the changing face of the Chinese worker.

"I never went to college before I came here. But they had a program here at Foxconn. I got a technology degree (vocational qualification) by going to class after work."

Sun is now an assistant production manager and mother of two. Her working day is roughly 8 hours, with a 90-minute lunch break. She makes about 16,000 yuan ($2,550, 1,850 euros) per month, enough to employ an ayi, or nanny, to help take care of her children, aged 6 and one-and-half. Shenzhen is now her home. She owns a house in town with her husband, who also works for Foxconn.

The conditions and salary, Sun concedes, weren't always this good. But she says the catalyst that has defined modern China, rapid change, is now reshaping the lives of workers.

"When I first came here, we didn't know how to protect our rights," she says. "If there were extra hours, we were happy to work extra hours. We didn't know there were laws that say you are not allowed to work over a certain amount of hours. I used to think that working meant I just have to work hard. Now I think I have to work hard but I also have to feel happy in my work."

Jiang plays with an inexpensive Huawei handset. She says she can't yet afford to buy one of the more than 10,000 iPhones she helps make every week.

"My family wasn't doing very well and couldn't afford to send me to college, so I came here," she says.

A farmer's daughter, Jiang got a job with Foxconn two years ago. "I live here inside the factory in a dormitory," she says.

Her typical day begins with a meeting at 7:15 am, during which workers are assigned tasks. She starts her work at 8 am, has a 30-minute lunch break, and technically finishes at about 6 pm. If there's a big order in, she works from 8 am to 8 pm, with the last two hours paid at overtime rates.

"The base wage is 2,500 yuan a month," she says. "With overtime, I can get about 3,700 or 3,800 yuan."

Jiang says she's happy with the work and pay. So is Sun.

"It's not like what outsiders say, that we are a sweatshop factory," Sun says.

In February, the day after the traditional Chinese New Year holiday ended, migrant workers lined up outside Foxconn's gates looking for work 20,000 of them, says the company's spokesman for the Chinese mainland, Liu Kun.

"They were waiting seven days for an opportunity," Liu says.

Skilled workers with experience over the age of 30 are the most sought after. Foxconn also prefers to employ young women from the countryside, says Liu, because traditionally they have worked to support their family while also performing domestic duties at home.

"They know responsibility," he says. "This is a very good quality."

In reality, Foxconn doesn't really get what it is chasing in a worker.

There are roughly six male employees for every four females. The profile of the average employee in the Shenzhen factory is a 23-year-old male from a poor rural area who has a low level of formal education, and little or no practical work experience.

Liu complains that for the younger work force, loyalty and a lifelong career with a single employer are a thing of the past.

"Sometimes they are like working-holiday tourists," Liu says. The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Wu Shengyang and his friends rank among that generation of more mobile workers who have turned retention rates for companies on their head.

They slowly walk along a wall in the maze of streets that is downtown Shenzhen, perusing a collage of printed and hand-scrawled job notices plastered on boards and walls.

"We just got here from Guangzhou today," he says. "We're only looking for short-term jobs. It's easier to come and go."

Packs of other 20-something migrant workers follow in their wake. It's the old area of the city, and scooters and hawkers throng the narrow lanes. Neighboring Hong Kong feels like a world and a century away. Only 30 years ago, Shenzhen was little more than a fishing village. It's now a bustling metropolis and a monument to China's dramatic growth.

Wu hopes to find work nearby in what looks like a cluster of dilapidated warehouses, each a teeming ecosystem of small businesses, light industry, micro-factories and eateries.

"I've been doing short-term work at places like this for about five years," says Wu. "Mostly with clothing companies. We get paid about 15 yuan per hour. We stay in small motels right now, but we want jobs with dorm housing. We are always traveling around the country looking for the best short-term job. It's better because you get paid for what you work."

The swagger goes out of him, momentarily.

"Also, I'm not qualified for Foxconn, I don't think."

The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

In one of those warehouse-like buildings, Zhao Shuang, 30, hunches over a sewing machine and churns out women's business tops. About half a dozen others do the same.

Zhao came to Shenzhen to work about 10 years ago. Her husband is a construction worker. He and their five-year-old daughter live in Hubei. His parents help take care of their little one.

Zhao starts at 8 am, and usually pulls a 10-hour shift, six days a week. She says she makes 4,000 to 5,000 yuan a month, on par with the average wage for a university graduate in Beijing, which a survey by human resources provider Zhaopin last year found to be 4,746 yuan. But unlike many workers employed by big companies, she receives no healthcare or housing benefits.

Her boss, Lu Keqin, looks up from his machine to chime in.

"If they make more they earn more. When business is good and there's lots of work, they can make 10,000 yuan a month. They choose their hours, it's very flexible."

Zhao says she makes double in Shenzhen compared with what she can earn back home.

"I only see my child once or twice a year. It's really hard, I really miss her, but it's easier to make money here and I need to make money for her."

Her family story is a snapshot of the evolution of the Chinese worker. Her parents were poor farmers, she is a manufacturing worker, and she says her daughter will go to university.

"I'm just a migrant worker from a small village," she says. "I just want the best in life for my daughter."

Zhao's willingness to make personal sacrifices and work tirelessly for the good of her family is a characteristic of Chinese workers who are currently 30 or older, says Foxconn spokesman Liu. They are qualities that he believes are on the wane.

"When the older generation grew up, the Chinese economy was not good, and many families were on the poverty line," Liu says. "So they went out to make a living for themselves and also for their families. They had to work hard. In that situation, people rapidly matured.

"For the new generation, it's been the boom time of the Chinese economy. The country has seen a giant change from agricultural society to the global village. They are in touch with new things from America, Europe, and other (Chinese) provinces. They are very emotional; they have learned a lot of things at school and have comparatively good living standards. When he or she goes out to get a job, sometimes it's only to earn money for themselves, not their family, so their sense of responsibility is sometimes lower."

When that wave of generational change hit Foxconn five or six years ago, Liu says the company wasn't prepared.

"They cannot bear hardship and they always complain," he says.

Liu maintains Foxconn was unfairly targeted over the string of attempted suicides among their employees in 2010.

Irrespective, he says the company has introduced a number of new initiatives including the mental health hotline, more organized social activities, professional dorm management and salary hikes.

"In the past four years, the basic wages for laborers have increased by over 160 percent," he says.

In a report released in December, international workers rights group Fair Labor Association found that 98.9 percent of recommendations it made to Foxconn for improving working conditions had been implemented, although the finding has not totally silenced criticism from some watchdog organizations. And while Jiang and Sun seem happy, not everyone on the factory floor is.

The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Lu Erfeng sits on his bed in the tiny, seventh-floor apartment he rents in Shenzhen for 450 yuan a week. There's a cardboard box for a side table, a PC, and not much else.

"I'm sick of working in a factory," he says.

Lu, 21, began working for Foxconn when he was 17. A migrant worker from Henan province, he punches out 3,000 to 4,000 motherboards for Apple computers during each eight to 10-hour shift, six days a week.

"The work is very boring," he says. "You can't talk to each other, you can't listen to music. I think it's very depressing. My friends (at Foxconn) think it's very depressing."

When he first arrived almost five years ago, the base wage at Foxconn was 900 yuan per month. Lu says it went up after the suicide scandal, but free accommodation and meals were also revoked.

"I make around 3,000 yuan per month," he says.

With wages rising nationally, he believes he can make more elsewhere, and has handed in his resignation.

According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, in 2003 the average wage for a migrant worker like Lu was 690 yuan per month.

Last year, a decade on, the average monthly wage for a migrant worker was 2,609 yuan a month, an increase of almost 280 percent.

Kam Wing Chan, a professor and demographer with the University of Washington, says Chinese workers are still very much divided by the socio-economic and geographical divides of town and country.

"The average urban worker leads a somewhat basic but reasonable life and aspires for financial security, a good quality of life for the family, and to own an apartment, if he or she doesn't already," he says. "The life of most rural (and) migrant workers is somewhat unstable and they struggle to make a living. Their dream is to make more money."

Speaking in generalities about a nation of 1.3 billion people is difficult, Kam says, but he believes the past decade has seen the Chinese worker undergo a change in characteristics and lifestyle.

"They are more educated, and they make more now," he says. "They also have more job choices."

National Bureau of Statistics figures show the average yearly wage for Chinese urban workers in 2003 was 14,040 yuan. The most recent figures (from 2012) reveal annual wages for urban workers have more than tripled to an average of 47,593 yuan.

The average rural net income per capita has tripled over the same period from 2,622.2 yuan in 2003 to 7,916.6 yuan in 2012.

But calculations based on data from the National Bureau of Statistics show the basic cost of living has also skyrocketed in China.

In 2003, the annual average cost of living for each rural Chinese worker was 1,943 yuan, or 74 percent of the average rural net income per capita.

By 2012, the figures show price rises for basic consumables had kept pace with the rise in rural income, with the average cost of living for each rural worker about 5,908 yuan, or 74.62 percent of the average rural household income.

The numbers paint a much rosier picture for urban dwellers.

In 2003, the annual average cost of living for an urban dweller was 6,510 yuan, or 46.37 percent of the average wage.

In 2012, the annual average cost of living for an urban dweller was 16,674.3 yuan, just 35 percent of the average wage.

The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

Yang Juxiang, 47, is one of the millions of migrant workers from the countryside chasing those higher wages in the cities.

In an old and cavernous Shenzhen factory, she sits at a table with five others. They box up pieces of filmy plastic that have been spat out by a noisy machine.

Originally from Sichuan province, Yang has been doing this job for 14 years.

"We don't know what we are making," she says. "We make things for China, we make things that are exported overseas."

She recently received a 200-yuan pay rise and now makes about 1,800 yuan a month for eight hours' work, six days a week.

Across the table from her, new employee Fu Yuefeng, 20, is learning the ropes.

He's a middle school drop out who loves Sylvester Stallone movies.

"My dream is I want to be a boss, any kind of boss," he says. "It's unrealistic. It will never happen."

The older women at the table cluck and disagree and offer encouragement. The numbers, and the experts, agree with these matrons of manufacturing. The future is generally looking brighter for young Chinese workers.

Zeng Xiangquan, head of the school of human resources at Renmin University of China, says despite a recent slump in China's manufacturing sector and concerns over flagging GDP growth, wages will continue rising on the back of strong demand for labor that's being exacerbated by the advent of a rapidly aging workforce.

"The Chinese economy will continue to grow, irrespective of whether it's at the double-digit rate like a few years ago, or at the current, single-digit rate," he says. "The labor force, especially those under the age of 24, is decreasing while demand for labor is increasing."

Zeng says businesses in China are already competitively hiking wages, improving conditions and offering perks in a bid to attract a shrinking pool of workers.

But while the government is committed to improving wages and standards of living, Zeng says there's still a long way to go.

"The overall (average) wage in China is 10 percent of that in developed countries," he says.

While pay packets are increasing, some say the workload is going up, too.

The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

On a factory floor near the outskirts of Beijing, Xu Libo pops his head out of a bus engine bay. Up and down the manufacturing line, other Foton automotive workers weld and grind and bolt the people movers together.

Xu, a 32-year-old migrant worker from Shiyan in Hebei Province, says his wages have almost doubled to 5,000 yuan per month in the past five years. But there's a tradeoff. He now works an average of 11 hours per day, six days a week, compared with eight hours a day roughly two years ago.

A married father of one, Xu reckons more money for more work is a decent deal.

What they want...

Li the Foxconn supervisor now earns enough to have his wife and two children live with him in Shenzhen, a rarity for a migrant worker. His wish in life is to have financial security, so his children can follow their dreams.

Sun the Foxconn middle manager wants to continue climbing the corporate ladder.

Sitting at her sewing machine, Zhao daydreams about seeing her daughter more than twice a year.

Yang the manufacturing matron wants to earn more money.

Xu from the bus factory looks forward to the moment at the end of every shift when he phones home. His three-year-old daughter sings him songs and reads him Chinese poetry. One day soon, he hopes to be with her in person, when she does.

Xu wants to take his entire family on a holiday. They've never had one.

Jiang is proud that she makes things that are used everyday by people all over China, and the world. She also believes hard work in her country can produce more than just iPhones and buses and clothing.

"I believe you make your own destiny."

Xie Wenjia contributed to this story.

The dream and reality for young Chinese workers

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