Li Junjun is one of a fading breed among China’s 145m migrant workers who come from rural areas to the Pearl River delta to find well-paid work. Mrs Li, who has worked as a cleaner in Shenzhen for 16 years and is now 45, is not only older than many of them, but more pragmatic.
“I have no education or special skills and if I don’t do a good job and work hard, I cannot improve my life,” she says. “When I am unable to work, I will go back to my home, but there are few opportunities there.”
Mrs Li is speaking from the flat she shares with six young women, all of whom work in local restaurants. Most of those in her block are teenagers or in their 20s, and some have more ambition than to work in the city for a few years, save money to support their families and then return home.
“My hope is that my children can live a better life than me. I think it will happen,” says Mrs Li, who is the family’s main breadwinner, earning Rmb1,900 ($297) a month. Her husband is in their village in Gansu province and tends their land. The couple has two children – a married daughter and a 23-year-old son in the army.
She represents the classic migrant worker of the first wave that came to the coastal cities in the 1980s. But the “new generation” – those born after 1985 – have bigger ambitions and are less dedicated to saving their wages for the family.
In some ways, the new generation of migrants is luckier and better off than the earlier one. They not only earn more, but they can spend more of it on themselves and their advancement since their parents are less likely to live in poverty – the original generation of migrants helped to ameliorate that.
“The first generation left the village to make money and then come back to build a house,” says Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute for Contemporary Observation, which monitors workers’ conditions in Shenzhen. “Now, the family’s house is built and there are no jobs there. They go to the city for their future.”
As a result, they are less docile and harder to manage. Factories in the region commonly experience labour turnover of 10 to 15 per cent a month – or well in excess of 100 per cent a year. This generation does not find it so easy to settle.
“Our parents are too traditional. They think in a straight line. They would like to arrange a life for their children, but young people should enjoy the process of trying out many possibilities,” says one 23-year-old factory worker in Shenzhen.
Jane Cheng, a human resources executive for TTI, a power tools and electronics company based in Dongguan which owns US brands including Dirt Devil and Hoover, says the new migrants require careful handling.
“Fifteen years ago, if it was the third day after the new year holiday and you went over to the dormitories and said: ‘We have a heavy order, come to work,’ they would all do it. The company was the most important thing. These days if you told them the same thing, they would say ‘no’.”
Ms Cheng says the younger workers are, as the Chinese saying has it, “riding a donkey and looking for a horse” – they work in factories for money but are looking for opportunities. TTI has implemented a programme of community events and sports to make its workers feel happier and more stable.
Yet last year an outbreak of suicides at Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer, revealed the unhappiness among some of the new generation. Their greater ambition to do well for themselves causes its own difficulties – especially when the reality does not match the hope.
Wage rates have been rising sharply across the delta following the deaths, but some of the underlying problems remain. Migrants are still bound by the hukou system of household registration, which excludes rural dwellers from education and social benefits in their adopted cities. It has also become very expensive to live outside factories that provide them with free dormitory accommodation and meals. Although they can see wealth and expensive property in the city, their opportunities are limited.
The government’s attempt to shift low-cost manufacturing into inland provinces is partly aimed at easing the problems of migrants. The idea is that they will be able to find work closer to home and not face the same isolation as in the coastal cities.
Yet young people will carry on coming to the Pearl River delta to seek not only money, but a better life. Unless factories or the government can fulfil those hopes, they will remain restless.
Additional reporting by Zhou Ping