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March 31, 2010

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New generation of migrant workers dream of a better future

THEY dye their hair red. They refuse to smoke cigarettes under 10 yuan (US$6.8) a pack. They have body-piercings and tattoos. They go clubbing at night. They don't send any money to their parents back in their hometown. They don't like being called "farmers" or taken as "cheap labor." They have their own career plans, hating to be "chosen" all the time.

They are the new generation of migrant workers. They don't want to follow the old path of their forefathers, the first generation of migrants from backward villages to big cities who were living thriftily and sending home every coin they could earn.

Most of the new migrants were born in the late 1980s, quite a number of them even after 1990. They are better educated, most with high school certificates, which gives them higher expectations regarding job, salary and working environment.

Unlike the first migrant pioneers who poured into the big cities in the late 1990s, whose biggest wish was to make enough money and go back home to build a new brick house, get married and have children, these young people, without too much farming experience back home and picky about jobs, have ambitions to fit into city life.

The Blue Book on Consumption of Guangdong Province, recently published by Guangdong Economy Press, includes research papers on the consumer market in Guangdong, which has the largest population of migrant workers in China.

One of the chapters is "Migrant Farmer Workers' Consumption: Present Status, Features and Trends," written by Wei Weixin, a professor in the Institute of Guangzhou Development at Guangzhou University.

The professor points out in his research that 80 to 90 percent of the old generation of migrant workers chose to remit their income to their families in their hometown, while 65 to 70 percent of the new generation spend their income on themselves. Migrant workers' spending on vocational training, computers, mobile phones and other IT gadgets has surged.

Zhang Shuai, 20, from Dali, Yunnan Province, recently left his job in a factory after two days there, "because the daily meals are dissatisfactory, with cooked cabbage all the time."

The boy left Dali and began his working life four years ago after he dropped out of school.

He drifted from Nanning City in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province and finally to Shanghai, taking jobs such as painter in a home decor company, a waiter, a supermarket cashier, a laborer on a construction site, and many others.

"Four years of life in cities has taught me a lot. I don't regret dropping out of school at all," Zhang says. "I come from a poor and remote village, but I do have my own requirements for a job in terms of salary, working environment and working intensity. The quality of life matters to me."

Zhang is jobless now and has no plans at the moment to find a new one. When he had a job, he earned no more than 2,000 yuan a month, which was always widely spent without a coin left at the end of a month.

"I didn't know where the money went," he says. Zhang goes clubbing, plays billiards or video games, indulges in bars with his fellows, and is hooked up on the Internet all day long. He even gambled in some underground casinos but has now quit because of "lack of money."

He admits he has never sent money home since he left. "I've no extra money. I myself am in bad need of money," he says.

Zhang is thinking of starting his own business because "I want to be the boss of myself," he says. One idea is to sell handmade embroidery shoes made by the villagers in his hometown of Dali.

"I want to have a different life in Shanghai, a place full of opportunity," he says.

The older generation of migrant workers are often stereotyped as people dressed in rags with messy hair, dragging red-and-blue striped plastic bags.

But things are different for the new generation. They are fashion-conscious, have their own computers, chat online, see movies or listen to pop music.

Li Lang, one of Zhang's friends, says he pays more than 50 yuan for his mobile phone each month because he often calls his girlfriend after work.

"I find it difficult to save money now," Li says. "Hanging out with my girlfriend means spending money."

Liu Fengjie has a small stall selling newspapers, magazines and some snacks near Shanghai North Railway Station. The 52-year-old, who opened the booth more than eight years ago, says he has already sensed the changes in today's generation of migrant workers.

"Just walk around the waiting rooms, you'll find something interesting. The older migrants are gathering together, reading newspapers or playing poker, while the young migrants are usually sitting alone, absorbed in listening to music or playing with their mobile phones," he says.

During the return rush before each year's Spring Festival when millions of migrant workers go back to their hometowns, the railway station is crowded.

Liu finds that older migrant workers choose to wait in the temporary sheds the station puts up for them, while the young workers prefer to wait in the nearby fast-food restaurants or idle away the hours in Internet bars.

In addition to enjoying the convenience of city life, an increasing number of new migrant workers are beginning to pay more attention to their long-term development instead of living hand-to-mouth.

Yang Chun from Anhui Province quit her job just a few days ago. The 23-year-old complained that she found the work too tiring.

"I have to look after nine machines, and each machine manufactures a product every two minutes. I have to run back and forth hundreds of times a day," she says. "I have needled many blisters on my feet."

The job paid her 2,000 yuan a month, but she doesn't want to do it anymore. "I don't want to trade my health with work," she says.

Liu Ke, 22, has been working on a factory assembly line for two years and he plans to learn how to drive this year.

"After I get my driving license, I'm going to rent a truck and do logistics," he says. "I have to work 12 hours a day and am only allowed to have a break at noon."

For the new generation of migrant workers, salary might not be the top priority.

"They want to have more choices and do things they are interested in, like their urban peers do," Li Hongyi, a law professor from Jiangnan University, told the Jiangnan Evening News.

"They are aware of protecting their legal rights and hope their voices are heard by society," he says. "They are not cheap labor and don't want to be treated like that. The new generation of migrant workers have their life pursuits that should be respected."

(Wang Di from Fudan University also contributed to the story.)


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