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Meager Factory Salaries Leave Chinese Workers Reeling

by Tanya Thomas on July 4, 2010 at 8:22 AM
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 Meager Factory Salaries Leave Chinese Workers Reeling

Kuang Xiaohua, 21, quit her job on the assembly line for Taiwanese high-tech giant Foxconn to give birth to her daughter. Six months on, she and her family are struggling to make ends meet.

Her husband, who also works at Foxconn's facility in the southern city of Foshan, makes just 2,000 yuan (295 dollars) a month -- roughly the amount needed to purchase one of Apple's new iPhone 4s, produced by the Taiwan firm.

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"It's very difficult to live on such a small salary. Most of our money is spent on buying things for the baby," Kuang says, perched next to a pile of toys and a package of disposable diapers as she cuddles her daughter.

"Besides the baby, our biggest expense is rent, which costs us about 450 yuan a month," she adds of their dingy one-room flat, where the toilet is also the kitchen.
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While China's first generation of workers managed to send money home to their families in the country's hinterlands, despite their low salaries, today's employees say higher wages does not mean easier living.

Soaring inflation and housing costs are crippling the new generation, making it difficult for them to support their loved ones -- and perhaps compounding the intense pressures that resulted in 11 suicides among Foxconn's China staff.

"There is no way to see the future with the wage we are making. Living and working like this, my life has no direction," said a 22-year-old welder surnamed Zhang, who works at a factory that makes exhaust systems for Honda.

"I dream of one day buying a car or an apartment, but with the salary I'm making now, I will never succeed. The living standards of Chinese workers are pitiful."

A spate of recent strikes in factories in China's Guangdong province -- the world's workshop -- has led to repeated shutdowns at plants owned by Japanese giants such as Honda and Toyota, as workers decry low pay and tough conditions.

China's central government has expressed sympathy with the workers during the strikes, but at the same time has also tried to ensure that wages do not rise too fast and endanger export industries, a key driver of the economy.

While the minimum wage in some parts of China can be as low as 660 yuan a month, in Guangdong's Pearl River Delta, it has increased this year to around 1,000 yuan -- about 150 dollars.

By comparison, domestic workers in Hong Kong make 460 US dollars a month plus room and board. Spanish workers earn 910 dollars a month. The US federal minimum wage is 7.25 dollars an hour, or 290 dollars for a 40-hour week.

Zhang, a rail-thin worker with dyed brown hair, says he has not saved any money after two years of work, spending his earnings mostly on food, rent, clothes, Internet fees and his monthly mobile phone bill.

He and his fellow workers at Foshan Fengfu Auto Parts were offered a 300-yuan raise after a recent strike, bringing his monthly salary to 1,500 yuan.

"The most expensive thing I have ever bought was a 500-yuan pair of Nike running shoes," said the migrant worker from rural Guangdong.

A co-worker who helped organise the recent strike said he needed to work for five years in Guangdong factories in order to save enough money to buy his most prized possession -- a laptop computer he uses to follow other labour action.

Song Mafei, 22, who works at a nearby automotive lighting company, laughed when asked if he liked to go out in his spare time or chase after some of the many young women who work in nearby electronics factories.

"I don't make enough money to go out eating and drinking," Song said, puffing a cigarette -- a habit that costs him about 300 yuan a month.

"If you want to find a girlfriend, then that will cost even more money."

Foxconn has offered substantial raises to its southern China staff in response to the suicides.

But Kuang says that will not help much if she does not return to work -- which will only happen if her mother comes to care for the baby.

Before giving birth, she and her husband saved scrupulously and were able to pass on about 10,000 yuan to their parents over a two-year period, she said.

"I never really bought much and my husband is pretty good about money. He doesn't smoke or drink," said Kuang, who hails from rural Hunan province in central China.

"About the most expensive thing I bought was a 50 yuan pair of shoes.... One time I bought a mobile phone, but when I found out that it cost about 100 yuan a month to use, I sold it."

Source: AFP
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