Gen Next

Updated: 2012-05-25 08:25

By Zhao Yanrong (China Daily European Weekly)

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But for the moment, Yang is devoting his time working at Huajian Shoes, an original equipment manufacturing unit in Dongguan for leading global brands like Calvin Klein, Coach and Louis Vuitton, after studying vehicle maintenance at a vocational school in his hometown.

"I left home because I wanted to have a different experience, more to see what city life is all about," Yang says.

Though he is happy in his current employment, he says that he has no ambition to stay for long. "I am building up my network of friends and colleagues, as I intend to start my own auto maintenance business soon."

Though he has been working for more than four months, Yang is still spending the money that his parents sent him during his last semester at school. Yang's mother is working in Italy under a Chinese labor export program as a shoemaker.

Most of the younger migrant workers are the single children of working parents, and have grown up in urban areas where their parents were employed as first generation workers. Unlike their parents, they have also been brought up in better surroundings.

"The young workers are quite different from their parents who worked hard to keep the families running. For the younger workers, it is factors like what job and which job that are more important. One of the reasons why assembly lines are facing a labor shortage is because most of the younger workers are picky on aspects like payment, welfare, social status and working environment," says Chang Kai, professor at the School of Labor and Human Resources at the Renmin University of China.

Career choices

Working overtime often used to be a way for Chinese migrant workers to make extra money. But that is fast fading, as the younger generation is now more concerned with their social network and attending courses that are helpful in career advancement.

For Cheng Fangjun, an employee at Foxconn's Tianjin plant, three books on certified public accountancy are her constant bed companions.

The 22-year-old from Tianshui in Northwest China's Gansu province, says: "There is no way that I will work at a factory forever. I want to be an accountant and work in an office." After working for almost 10 hours in the night shift, she plans to read the accountancy books after a short nap in her spare time.

Before joining Foxconn, Cheng worked for a furniture factory in Tianjin, where workers were often forced to do overtime.

"In that factory, I felt that I was just labor and not a human being. The managers also had a very bad attitude. I always wanted to escape from that environment," she says, adding that her hands were often full of little cuts.

"The new generation of migrant workers pay more attention to the development of their careers, the company's future, working environment and self-improvement. If companies do not make changes to meet the new requirements, the labor shortage is likely to develop from an economic issue to a social problem," says Wang Xiaoqin, a professor at the school of economics in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province.

Regulation changes

An increasing number of employers are taking steps to fulfill these requirements. After a spate of 12 suicides within a short span of time during 2010, Foxconn decided to focus more on improving the physical and mental well-being of its employees.

Last year, each of the 200 outstanding assembly line workers in Foxconn won cash prizes of 5,000 yuan and an iPhone 4S. Their families were also invited to visit Taiwan, where the company, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd, is headquartered.

The minimum wage in Foxconn's Shenzhen plants is about 2,200 yuan, which is 700 yuan more than the government standard. And Foxconn chairman Terry Gou said earlier this month that he plans to double the minimum wage by August next year.

The company has also upgraded all of its dormitories into apartments serviced by professional property companies.

At the workplace, Foxconn has also changed its management style. The army-style discipline that the company was earlier known for has since disappeared. Most of the first-line managers have been trained to speak softly and in a friendly and encouraging way to the employees.

The company also provides a multitude of professional courses for workers to obtain a degree or certificate. There is also enough room for fun and entertainment in daily life with surprise picnics and other entertainment activities often thrown in.

"Foxconn invested nearly 100 million yuan last year on employee welfare activities," spokesman Liu Kun says.

By latest count there are more than 400,000 migrant workers working in Shenzhen, which is roughly the same as the entire population of a mid-size European or US city.

To cope with the labor shortage, some companies have also made significant changes to their labor relations' policies, says Liu of Huajian Shoes.

"The changes have mostly been in the processes of resolving conflicts between managers and migrant workers on issues such as payment, welfare and career development. Companies like ours have made systems much more reasonable, and in such a way that it benefits all concerned," Liu says.

In his factory in Dongguan, 70 percent of the workers are aged between 18 and 25. Most of them have a higher education background, and some young workers have also proved to be extremely creative.

Human resource costs have increased from 13 percent to 25 percent in the last five years. But Liu would still like to hire more young workers as they are ambitious and creative at work.

Labor experts like Feng Tongqing, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations, believes it is a positive sign of China's development.

"Their requirements push companies to respect their workers more, and push the government to develop a better social security system."

Government role

Gen Next

Zhang Zilong, director of the apartment management center for migrant workers under the TEDA administrative committee. [Jia Lei / for China Daily]

For a nation where a majority of the industries are still State-controlled, it is not surprising to see that change billowing across government agencies, too.

With a stable market still being the cornerstone of local investment, local governments are also leaving no stone unturned to improve the working conditions of migrant laborers.

The Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), set up in the 1980s, has been one of the leading State-level economic development zones in China. There are more than 140,000 migrant workers and up to 3,300 foreign companies in the area. The TEDA committee established an apartment management center for the workers last July, and is building five new apartment blocks for them.

In the new apartments, eight workers share a 47-square-meter space that also has basic household appliances such as TV and two showers and one toilet.

"Companies often face problems when it comes to recruiting and retaining workers. Good accommodation provided by the government can often release some of this pressure," says Zhang Zilong, director of the apartment management center.

According to Zhang, young workers prefer a better living environment. Most of the previous worker dormitories built during the late 1990s are no longer popular with the young crowd.

Psychological counseling hotlines are another feature that is available at the TEDA. Most of the problems faced by migrant workers pertain to love life and relationships, followed by job hunting, social network building, family relationships and personality development, says Liu Ruixia, a national standard therapist at the TEDA.

Li Xiang and Chen Hong contributed to this story.

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