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Young Chinese women sort through piles of scrap metal at the Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. facility in Shanghai, China. They earn about $125 a month, which is "not much money," concedes their boss. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Young Chinese women sort through piles of scrap metal at the Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. facility in Shanghai, China. They earn about $125 a month, which is "not much money," concedes their boss. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Focus

China's cultural evolution Add to ...

They are the builders of China's economic miracle: tens of millions of labourers from the countryside who came to the cities willing to work long hours and tolerate almost any hardship in exchange for a slightly better life. But in Chinese they are known as nong min gong, which means "farmer workers" - and strongly suggests that, at some point, they'll go back where they came from.

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Lu Hehua is part of the new wave of migrants. She arrived in the booming factory city of Guangzhou last week, having stood for the entire 10-hour bus ride from Jiangxi, her native province. Outgoing and obviously intelligent, she quickly landed a job in the sales department of a company that makes projectors in a part of Guangzhou known as Science City, one of many industrial districts found in Guangdong, the southeastern province that has been the engine of China's economic transformation. With more than 30 million of the 200-plus million migrants, it is "the workshop of the world."

But Ms. Lu, 21, is looking for a life that is a lot more than slightly better. Although the daughter of a farmer, she doesn't see herself ever returning to the farm. "I don't want to go home. I want to stay here for a long time. I feel I can change my life," she says over a bowl of pork, cucumbers and rice after work. An excited smile dominates her otherwise unlined face as she discusses the journey she has begun and where it may lead.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Ms. Lu's ambitions are not uncommon among a generation of migrant workers who are far more educated and worldly than those who came before them. Most, however, still find themselves trapped in dead-end factory jobs, unable to move up the ladder in a society rigged to deny them a place among the urbanites.

Now, their frustration is fuelling an unprecedented wave of strikes that has the potential to upend this country's economic model and raise prices on so much of what occupies store shelves around the world. If the new defiance catches fire, it could even threaten the social "stability" so cherished by the ruling Communist Party.

The government is clearly anxious, making a show of siding with the workers and raising the minimum wage in 27 provinces and cities. In Guangdong - which produces more than one-quarter of everything labelled "made in China" - the monthly minimum increased 20 per cent in March to just over $150. Across the country, wages rose 17 per cent last year.

That doesn't appear to have been nearly enough: According to the state-run China Daily newspaper, the province was hit by at least 36 strikes from May 25 to July 12. Some workers even demanded the right to form independent unions, which is forbidden.

So, while Ms. Lu and her contemporaries dream of changing their lives, the strikes - and the concessions the workers have won - show that they have something even more precious than decent pay: leverage. And they're just starting to realize it.

Ms. Lu shares a dorm room on the outskirts of Science City with five other "factory girls." Her new job, which pays 1,200 yuan (about $185) a month, is considered good by local standards, one that many older workers would love to have. But she sees it only as her first step toward a life completely different from the one she was born into.

"This company has no foreign-trade section. I like speaking English and want to go abroad. I want to be manager of a foreign-trade section, and then finally to open my own business," she says in English she learned at college. "My parents never had ideas like this. They were too busy."

Chinese urbanites now coming of age are frequently called the "Little Emperors" - privileged products of the nation's famed one-child policy who have been doted on incredibly.

Rural families are often allowed more children, but Ms. Lu and her two sisters had parents who invested everything in them, providing the education they never had and encouraging them to pursue opportunities that didn't exist before Deng Xiaoping opened the economy to the world in the 1980s.

The gamble was that their success would alter the destiny of the entire family. But the new migrants want more than just to make things for rich people - they want to buy those things for themselves. "My parents did everything for us - they were so hard-working and so selfless. I will try my best to repay them," Ms. Lu says. But her first paycheque will be spent on clothes, she adds, giggling.

'LITTLE EMPERORS' ON THE RISE

Those who study China's work force say the migrants who powered the country's spectacular growth were mostly men who had rarely finished high school and worked only for money to send their families. Many felt like fish out of water in the city, constantly longing for the countryside.

Today's migrants are 60-per-cent female; many have university or vocational training - and no intention of ever going "home" to the farm.

"The new generation doesn't transfer any money home. They work for themselves, so they can live in the city," says Liu Kaiming, executive director at the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a private think tank in nearby Shenzhen. "They see stories on TV and the Internet that tell them that, if they work hard, they can … buy a car or a big villa."

But their standard of living isn't improving fast enough. Even those who land top-end jobs with foreign companies still face persistently low salaries and restricted social services. China's hukou registration system separates the population into "urban" and "rural" classes, often on a hereditary basis. Most migrants retain a rural hukou, and therefore have to go to hospitals and send their children to schools where they are registered.

The cradle of the current unrest is Foshan, a manufacturing hub outside Guangzhou with some of the highest-paying and most-coveted jobs available to migrants. Millions of workers elsewhere are worse off, yet these are the ones demanding more.

Atsumitec, a Honda parts supplier, was hit by a week-long strike that ended on July 22 when workers won a 45-per-cent pay hike. As they returned to work, hundreds of others downed tools at Omron, another Japanese electronics maker in Science City. After less than a day, management caved in.

Those strikes followed a breakthrough two-week stoppage at another Honda plant in Foshan. News of its 24-per-cent increase soon spread as young labourers keep in touch through text messages and social-networking websites.

"If someone works hard for 12 hours a day and doesn't get paid properly for it, it's not fair. The problem is that management doesn't respect workers enough," says Deng Linlin, 19, who is from central China and works at Yuejing High Technology, a transistor maker in Science City.

Her parents are poor farmers, but sent her to vocational school, and now she's not satisfied with making 1,200 yuan a month to test products off the assembly line. A good working environment is even more important than pay, she says, and if a better job comes along, she'll take it. She, too, wants a business of her own some day.

The growing desire for upward mobility is more than a pipe dream because workers are no longer so easily replaced, especially better-educated ones. The country has tens of millions of unemployed, but few of them can fill high-tech jobs. So while the bulletin board in the employment centre near Science City is covered with openings at Sony, Honda and LG, older workers wait forlornly for something they can do.

"They would be satisfied with being a cleaner, a gardener or a nanny, but these electronics factories want workers who have graduated from high school, at least," says Chen Jindi, a young administrator at the jobs centre. "They prefer girls because girls are more careful."

There may already be a shortfall of two million skilled workers in Guangdong alone - a gap expected to widen as China draws more high-tech jobs while its population ages.

DEEP BIAS REMAINS

So the country needs people like Ms. Lu and Ms. Deng, even if urbanites don't realize it yet. Premier Wen Jiabao recently hailed migrant workers, saying their "labour is glorious and should be respected by society," but a deep bias remains against nong min gong, who are considered less "civilized."

"The new-generation migrant workers are living in the cities, but the way they're treated by society … is no better than the last generation. This is a big problem," says Zuo Xiaosi, a labour expert at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences. "These strikes are about pay, but they're also about better treatment."

And they're about dreams of something better than shift work and crowded dorms.

A week after arriving in Guangzhou, Ms. Lu sends an e-mail update. The job is going well - "I really learn many market skills" - but not life in the dorm. "I'd like to rent a house outside."

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