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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 ...


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.


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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