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Chinese factories must compete in the labor pool

ZHONGSHAN, China — If Wang Jinyan, an unemployed factory worker with a middle school education, had a resume, it might start out like this: "Objective: Seeking well-paid, slow-paced assembly-line work in air-conditioned plant with Sundays off, free wireless Internet and washing machines in dormitory. Friendly boss a plus."

As she eased her way along a gantlet of recruiters in this manufacturing megalopolis one recent afternoon, Wang, 25, was in no particular rush to find a job. An underwear company was offering subsidized meals and factory worker fashion shows. The maker of electric heaters promised 7 1/2-hour days.

"If you’re good, you can work in quality control and won’t have to stand all day," bragged a woman hawking jobs for a shoe manufacturer.

Wang flashed an unmistakable look of ennui and popped open an umbrella to shield her fair complexion from the South China sun.

"They always make these jobs sound better than they really are," she said, turning away. "Besides, I don’t do shoes. Can’t stand the smell of glue."

Assertive, self-possessed workers like Wang have become a challenge for the industrial titans of the Pearl River Delta that once filled their mammoth workshops with an endless stream of pliant labor from China’s rural belly.

In recent months, as the country’s export-driven juggernaut has been revived and many migrants have found jobs closer to home, the balance of power in places like Zhongshan has shifted, forcing employers to compete for new workers — and to prevent seasoned ones from defecting to sweeter prospects.

The shortage has emboldened workers and inspired a spate of strikes in and around Zhongshan that paralyzed Honda’s Chinese operations last month. The unrest then spread to the northern city of Tianjin, where strikers briefly paralyzed production at a Toyota car plant and a Japanese-owned electronics factory.

Although the walkouts were quelled with higher salaries, factory owners and labor experts say that the strikes have driven home a looming reality that had been predicted by demographers: The supply of workers 16 to 24 years old has peaked and will drop by a third in the next 12 years, thanks to stringent family planning policies that have sharply reduced China’s population growth.

In Zhongshan, many factories are operating with vacancies of 15 percent to 20 percent, compelling some bosses to cruise the streets in their BMWs and Mercedeses in a desperate hiring quest during crunch time.

The other new reality, perhaps harder to quantify, is this: Young Chinese factory workers, raised in a country with rapidly rising expectations, are less willing to toil for long hours for appallingly low wages like dutiful automatons.

Guo Yuhua, a sociologist at Tsinghua University, said the new cohort of itinerant workers was better educated, Internet-savvy and covetous of the urban niceties they discovered after leaving the farm.

"They want a life just like city folk, and they have no interest in going back to being farmers," said Guo, who studies China’s 230 million-strong migrant population.

But the more immediate challenge is to the Chinese export machine, which churns out about a third of China’s gross domestic product. Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Industries, whose 3,000 members employ more than 3 million workers, said he had been advising factory owners to offer better salaries, to treat employees more humanely and to listen to their complaints.

"The young generation thinks differently than their parents, they have been well protected by their families, and they don’t like to ‘chi ku,"’ Lau said.

The expression "chi ku," or eat bitterness, is a time-honored staple of Chinese culture. But for young workers in Zhongshan, it is not the badge of honor that an older generation wore with pride.

In an effort to avoid eating too much bitterness, Zhang Jinfang, a talkative 28-year-old, has cycled through a dozen factory jobs since arriving in Zhongshan after high school.

"Sometimes I’ll quit after a few weeks because the work is too hard or too boring," he said, eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant. "Money is important, but it’s also important to have less pressure in your life."

Zhang saves almost nothing of the $260-a-month salary he earns assembling cardboard boxes, another notable shift from the previous generation, which saved voraciously. By Western standards, he works hard — six days a week, sometimes more when orders pile up — and he spends about a fifth of his pay on a rented apartment, having long since fled the bunk beds and curfews of the factory-owned dormitory. His dream: to run a factory of his own.

"But for now, I’d love to work in an air-conditioned office," he said.

One factor in the expanding consciousness of migrant laborers is an astounding rise in education. Last year, nearly 8.4 million students graduated from high school, 5 million more than in 2001. The result is that a growing number of young people are ambitious, optimistic and more aware of their rights, said Lin Yanling, a labor specialist at the China Institute of Industrial Relations.

Then there is their fluency with technology — cell phones, e-mail and Internet chat — that connects them to peers in other factories.

"When they bump against unfair treatment, they are less afraid to challenge authority," she said.

With her iridescent fuchsia toenails and caramel-tinted hair, Liang Yali does not exactly fit the stereotype of the "made in China" worker bee. Raised by rice-farming peasants on the island province of Hainan, Liang, 22, is happily employed at a lock factory, where she packs the finished product into boxes.

She rents an apartment with two friends, eats out for most meals and spends Saturday night bar-hopping or singing at a local karaoke parlor. At night, before she goes to sleep, she sometimes plays a computer game in which participants steal vegetables from one another’s virtual farm.

Unlike many workers in Zhongshan, Liang had heard about the strikes, perhaps because the front door to Guangdong Mingmen Lock Industry sits across a muddy canal from where employees of a Honda lock factory held a rare protest earlier that week. She expressed measured sympathy for the strikers but said she was not interested in following their lead.

"My boss is nice and the work isn’t strenuous so I have no complaints," she said.

Her friend and co-worker, Li Jingling, 27, nodded in agreement, adding that their company sponsored sports activities and allowed employees to dress in street clothes on Saturdays. When the topic turned to her parents, Li said she felt sorry for them.

"They go out to the fields when the sun rises and return home when the sun goes down," she said. "No matter how difficult their marriage was, they would stick it out. For us, whether a bad marriage or a bad job, we’ll leave it if it’s lousy."

Back on recruiters’ row, the afternoon sun had thinned the already sparse crowd of job-seekers, leaving a few roughneck kids so undisciplined that not even the sweltering pipe factory was interested in taking them on.

Xiang Qing, a 22-year-old recruiter for the Funilai undergarment factory, was looking wilted and abject under the shade of a plastic canopy. Her factory, which normally employs 2,700 people, was about 700 bodies short. She did her best to sound upbeat but admitted that it was getting more difficult to find people who are willing to "love the factory and make it their home," as her brochure suggested.

Xiang complained that too many young people were unwilling to work hard.

"They’re all spoiled and coddled and have no patience," she said.

Then, with the interview over, she returned to her reading material, a woman’s magazine called Beauty.


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