Mainland workers now have hopes beyond pay

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am


Investment to increase salaries and improve working conditions at mainland electronics factories may not be enough to keep migrant workers engaged, happy and productive, according to experts.

'Wages and working conditions [at mainland plants] have improved substantially in the last few years,' said Richard Wong, a vice-president at electronics manufacturing services giant Flextronics International. 'Because of rapid demographic and social changes in China, employees - especially those under 30 - [now] have expectations beyond pay.'

Wong, who is responsible for global employee engagement, human resources compliance management and community outreach at Singapore-based Flextronics, said mainland factory workers 'have career aspirations just like their counterparts in other countries'.

His comments follow a recent independent audit by the Fair Labour Association (FLA) at the three largest mainland plants operated by Taiwan-listed Hon Hai Precision Industries, whose 'Foxconn' group of companies serves as the principal supplier of Apple's popular iPhone, iPad, iPod and iMac products.

In what the FLA described as a watershed for the Chinese electronics manufacturing sector, both Hon Hai and Apple have committed to implement reforms to 'reduce working hours to legal limits while protecting pay, improve health and safety conditions, establish a genuine voice for workers, and ... monitor [these commitments] on an ongoing basis to verify compliance'.

Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou Tai-ming views the commitments made to the FLA as a starting point. 'We won't stop here and will continue to increase salaries,' Gou said.

Alexandra Harney, author of the 2008 investigative book The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage, said: 'Higher wages are, of course, part of the way that a factory improves working conditions.

'But ensuring a happy and productive workforce is a more challenging task for companies everywhere, particularly in China where so many workers quit every year. One central challenge facing Apple and Foxconn is to find ways to ensure that their workers feel they have room for advancement in a particular factory, that they are not a disposable pair of hands or eyes. Not many factories in China have figured out how to do this.'

Hon Hai, which has an estimated 1.2 million mainland employees, has been accused by labour rights activists of abuses which led to a series of worker suicides in 2010 and a fatal industrial accident last year at one of its Foxconn factories.

'Third-party audits provide a vehicle for independent, unbiased ... evaluation of our practices,' Wong said. 'They can pinpoint deficiencies and give thought-provoking suggestions, but they shouldn't be looked upon as a change catalyst.'

Wong pointed out that many young, rural migrant workers employed by mainland electronics factories 'don't wish to be stuck in dead-end, monotonous jobs', but their problem is a lack of 'sufficient training to tackle more challenging opportunities'. He added: 'They also keep moving from place to place in search of the proverbial promised land, so they have no sense of belonging. [Their] needs have become increasingly psychological and social.'

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics show the mainland had 252.78 million rural migrant workers last year, up 4.4 per cent from 2010.