A search for identity, not just a job

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2012, 12:00am


When Chen Jinzhu came to Dongguan for the first time in August last year, she had her first taste of the excitement of city life in 'the factory of the world'.

The 19-year-old migrant worker from Shantou on the east coast of Guangdong became a waitress at a fine-dining Western restaurant in a posh residential area of Dongguan called Dalang. She chose an English name, Cherry, learnt some simple English, made new friends and began studying accountancy.

Chen is among a growing number of the second generation of migrant workers, usually born in the 1980s or 1990s, with a higher literacy level than their predecessors and a preference for work in the services sector over manufacturing.

'I want to see the world outside Shantou,' said the fresh graduate.'I also managed to escape from my parents, who have tight control over what I do.'

Chen, the eldest of five children, chose to work at a restaurant with a monthly salary of about 2,000 yuan (HK$2,460) rather than in a factory, where she could easily earn at least 2,500 yuan a month.

She sends about half of her monthly wage home, and uses the rest to repay loans from friends to pay the annual 2,000 yuan fee for accounting courses in Dongguan.

'My parents work in a handbag factory in Shantou, but I don't like working conditions in the factories,' Chen said. 'It's boring with long hours, which won't give me much time to relax after work.'

Tempted by the stories of city life told to her by cousins who worked in Shenzhen, Chen thought Dongguan sounded colourful and interesting.

'I work in a Western restaurant, which has air-conditioning and gives me a chance to learn some simple English and what Western dishes are like,' she said. 'I like Dongguan.'

Some social workers said the younger generation cares more about quality of life than the salaries they earn, and would not tolerate the level of hardship their parents went through during the first three decades of economic opening in Guangdong since 1978.

Zhang Yuewu, the secretary general of the Shenzhen Public Emotional Care Centre, a psychological counselling hotline, said the younger generation of migrant workers thought quite differently from their predecessors.

'They are more willing to settle down and try to make a home in the city,' he said. 'They want more than a job - they want to create an identity for themselves in society.'

Zhang said the centre had received about 10,000 calls since it was set up three years ago. About 100 calls came from people who contemplating suicide or even murder.

Part of the problem is that the current generation of migrant workers is confronted by the conspicuous wealth of cities like Shenzhen, where luxury-goods stores and expensive cars are becoming more common, said Ken DeWoskin, Beijing-based director of Deloitte China Research and Insight Centre.

This affects their expectations, DeWoskin said. 'The newcomers ask themselves 'what do I need to get from where I am to there?' rather than thinking 'here is where I am now, tomorrow I will be a little bit better off. Many of them will not succeed [in attaining such wealth],' he said, adding that being unrealistic and impatient was a recipe for 'unrest and unhappiness'.

According to a National Bureau of Statistics survey released last week, the ratio of migrant workers in manufacturing shrank to 36 per cent last year from 36.7 per cent in 2010.

The poll of nearly 200,000 migrant workers across 31 provinces showed that the service sector was the third main employer of migrant labour last year after manufacturing and construction.

The migrant worker population grew 4.4 per cent to 252.8 million people - 19 per cent of the population - with growth concentrating on the thriving central and western regions.

Regional income disparity shrank last year, with the national average monthly wage rising 21.2 per cent to 2,049 yuan (HK$2,519). Migrants' wages soared 21 per cent to 2,053 yuan in the east, 22.9 per cent to 2,006 yuan in the central provinces and 21.1 per cent to 1,990 yuan in the west.