SCMP: Tables turn for migrant workers

China Labour Bulletin appears in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Denise Tsang in Guangzhou
8 March 2010

In the old days Guangdong migrant workers like Liu Xiaorong would have been treated as factory fodder, given the bare minimum in wages and easily replaced if they complained.

The tables have turned with an acute labour shortage in the so-called "factory of the world" meaning workers like Liu now call the shots. Even the lure of three times the normal pay and perks such as air conditioning, basketball courts and television is not enough to get workers to sign up.

After weathering slumping orders during the global financial crisis, factories are desperate to hire migrant workers to handle an upswing in demand. But gone are the days of "cherry picking" labourers from as far away as Sichuan and Hubei , who eagerly queued up for sought-after factory jobs. The changing nature of the employment market means labourers have increased demands. No longer is feeding themselves and their families and having enough left over to build a house in their hometown sufficient. They want variety and flexibility in their work.

Liu, a migrant worker in Guangdong since 1999, has certainly raised her expectations. She became a part-time worker at Hong Kong-owned jeans exporter Weiye Garments in Huadu, Guangzhou, last week after spending the Lunar New Year holiday with her two children and her parents in their hometown of Chengdu, Sichuan.

Before the holiday, she left a full-time job at a factory producing amplifiers in Luogang , Guangzhou, because of poor working conditions. Liu chose a part-time position, which gives her more flexibility in working hours and will allow her to change jobs once the opportunities arise.

"What I really want is a job that doesn't require me to work day and night, offers more leisure time and pays around 1,000 yuan to 2,000 yuan [HK$1,135-HK$2,270] a month," said Liu, 37, who has spent the past 11 years making ends meet in Guangdong. "I am getting old and have had enough of hard work."

Her targeted salary is as much as seven times the 300 yuan she earned in 1999 when she started her blue-collar career in Shenzhen.

Now, Liu and about five friends, who are from her hometown, are packaging jeans for Weiye for seven yuan an hour, or 40 per cent above the market average.

Weiye's Hong Kong manager, Ivy Leung, who described the pay of temporary workers as being at "seafood" levels, said it had jumped to as much as 15 yuan an hour in the week before the Lunar New Year as labour supplies dried up.

Weiye only had one out of every 10 migrant labourers return to work after the Lunar New Year break. The factory has fewer than 100 workers out of a total of 400 keeping production belts moving.

Still, it has some loyal migrant workers, including Lin Shunzeng, who was originally from Sichuan. At 69, Lin is happy with her job partly because she can still make a living at her age and has made friends with fellow workers. "I miss my home; who wants to live in a place far, far away from your hometown?" said Lin, whose two daughters work at nearby factories. "In Sichuan I would never be able to earn a fen, but here I can make a living."

The change in fortunes for migrant workers has been relatively quick. The repercussions of the global financial crisis forced 25 million of them out of their jobs during the worst of the turmoil last year.

There are now about 230 million migrant labourers around the mainland, including 150 million in big cities.

To spur labour supply, Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang said at the beginning of the annual National People's Congress meeting on Friday that the province's minimum wages would be raised. The move, which will end a one-year break in the annual increase, will see minimum wages in Guangzhou rise from 1,000 yuan a month, from 770 yuan in Dongguan and from 900 yuan-1,000 yuan in Shenzhen. The increases, which have yet to be determined, will vary in each place.

Ken Lam Wing-lok, manager of apparel maker Fine Sky Garment in Panyu, said migrant labourers' attitude to work and their sense of value had changed during the industrial boom of the past three decades.

"It is not a matter of having air-conditioning and higher pay, as these perks come too late," Lam said. "Information flow is so efficient and the choice for workers is so wide that they do not necessarily have to spend their youth in factories." Lam said he offered 3,000 yuan a month for temporary workers, or three times the normal pay, but last week only managed to recruit three people.

The sweetened offer means extra costs for Lam, but it is better than having to pay a HK$1 million penalty for failing to deliver his export shipments on time.

To see how the labour market has changed in Guangdong you merely need to turn the corner of Lam's factory. Outside an industrial park, four siblings were taking their pick of a number of job offers last week.

Zhong Li, the eldest at 37, attended three recruitment offices in one morning, with several jobs offering her about 2,000 yuan a month and a clean working environment.

One sign outside an electronics factory promised "a decent work place, recreational facilities such as badminton and basketball courts, regular entertainment activities, meals and accommodation".

"I will think about this," she said. "The factories say this, but don't mean it. The previous factory I worked at offered a basketball court, which was used as a storage room and no one could play at all."

Zhong's sister Hui, 19, who has just finished secondary school, was looking for a job where she did not have to work too hard. "I want to earn some money so that I can stay at a nicer place and dress myself more decently," she said.

The Zhongs have decided to stay and live in Guangdong even though more factories have been built in their home in Guangxi.

"It is more exciting and glamorous to live the city life," said 25-year-old Zhong Jun, their younger brother. "And we don't have to go home to help out folks during the harvesting period. Reaping grain is exhausting."

Labour experts said the nationwide push for urbanisation was changing the nature of mainland labour markets. It was making more jobs available in service sectors such as hotels and restaurants, while rising living standards and education levels were making blue-collar careers unattractive.

The state policy of encouraging relocation of factories to inner parts of the country means workers also do not have to be separated from their loved ones or families to make ends meet.

"Migrant workers have higher expectation of their lives and don't want to get stuck in sweatshops," Robin Munro, deputy director of the non-governmental organisation China Labour Bulletin, said.

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