Young migrants in Shenzhen not so different from their parents – survey finds

Young migrant workers in Shenzhen, just like their parents, have to work long hours in hazardous conditions for low pay. The key difference between the generations, a new survey shows, is that the expectations of younger workers are much higher than their parents, seeking to establish a life for themselves in the city rather than return to the countryside.

More than half of the 5,110 young migrants (average age 24) interviewed in a city-wide survey last month said they regularly worked in excess of the legal limit of 36 hours overtime each month. And even after working excessive overtime, the average monthly income for young workers in the city was still just 1,839 yuan.

The vast majority of that income was spent on daily necessities such as food, accommodation and transport, with additional expenditure going on training classes, the Internet and phones. Nevertheless, 57 percent of the interviewees said they saved regularly, primarily for their children’s education, building a house back home or for their own education or job training.

It is widely assumed that young migrants tend to spend more money on their own interests and personal development. And while this may be true, the vast majority of respondents, 87 percent, also said they regularly sent money back to their families, on average 4,244 yuan a year, or about one fifth of their income. But most young migrants still only returned home once a year, had little or no experience of agricultural work, and would prefer to settle in the city rather than the countryside.

The higher expectations of the younger workers were revealed in their assessment of a “reasonable” (合理) and an “ideal” (理想) income. Asked what they thought a reasonable monthly income, based on their ability, would be, the respondents’ replies averaged out at 2,679 yuan, some 842 yuan higher than their current average income. Asked what their ideal income would be, one that would allow them to live and raise a family in Shenzhen, the average estimate was 4,200 yuan, more than double current incomes.

The survey conducted by Shenzhen University and city’s trade union federation clearly showed that the working environment for young migrants had not improved much, with many workers complaining about excessive noise and temperatures on the factory floor, as well as dust and other hazardous materials. Moreover, the survey found, many workers were unaware of the hazards they faced and had not received proper training.

Living conditions showed little improvement either, with nearly half of those surveyed still living in dormitories provided by the factory, with six people on average sharing a small spartanly furnished room.

The Labour Contract Law states that all employees should have a written employment contract. According to the survey, however, about 79 percent of those interviewed had signed a labour contract with their employer, although most were short-term contracts, with 55 percent being less than two years in duration. The majority of respondents were employed in labour-intensive industries such as assembly line work, although increasing numbers were employed in tertiary industries.

The survey showed that the two most fundamental problems faced by young migrants were low wages and institutional discrimination related to the household registration system. Although many workers also cited an identity crisis, a lack of direction and a sense of powerlessness as other important issues that need to be addressed.

The union sponsored survey recommended that problems of low pay in particular be tackled by revising the minimum wage law and by drafting a specific collective bargaining law for Shenzhen.

It also called for more grassroots unions and greater workplace democracy. Only 20 percent of the young workers surveyed had joined a trade union, and 34 percent they did not understand what trade unions were. Although some 58 percent agreed that trade unions “can represent workers’ interests and help resolve their problems,” this figure was notably lower than for the older workers surveyed, 68 percent of whom agreed with the statement.

Finally, the survey called for the abolition of institutional barriers to young migrants settling down in the city by giving them equal access to medical and social insurance and schooling for their children, and crucially, by constructing affordable housing for migrant workers and their families.
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