Retail in Asia

In People

China’s new workers: better educated, mobile and ambitious

Demand for higher wages and better conditions has put the spotlight on China’s young labour pool. Despite recent concessions, many workers believe they deserve more and move from one factory to the next.

At first glance, China’s current crop of blue-collar employees would seem to have it better than their predecessors. Monthly salaries are being raised, living and working environments are being improved, and some companies are even providing facilities such as internet access.

Not so, according to the young production staff. Migrant hands are considered to be at the lowest socioeconomic level. Although monthly salaries have been raised to as much as CNY2,000 (USD295) in recent months, factories are cutting overtime hours drastically while boosting daily yield requirements.

This is resulting in lower take-home pay that is often just enough to cover day-to-day expenses. In many cases, 10 people share one dormitory room, resulting in little or no privacy, especially for couples. Hot water is available, but only for a limited period of each day.

Institute for Contemporary Observation director Liu Kaiming agrees it is not easy being a young worker today. Although conditions were worse 20 years ago, workers then were better compensated, earning a higher than average annual income. In those days, a university professor might earn CNY200-500 (USD30-75) per month; a civil servant, roughly CNY500. The minimum wage of a factory worker in Shenzhen or Dongguan, in Guangdong province, was at least CNY200. Including overtime, take-home pay reached CNY500 each month.

The younger set, however, is much more mobile and less willing to bite the bullet. They quit their current positions and move as soon as they find factories offering better compensation and benefits, even if these are just free dinners, internet access or basketball courts.