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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: June 12, 2010 NO. 24 JUNE 17, 2010
Give Them Hope in Life


Dr. Lu Huilin, an associate sociology professor at Peking University (COURTESY OF LU HUILIN)

After this year's ninth suicide at Foxconn on May 14, Dr. Lu Huilin, an associate sociology professor at Peking University, and another eight sociology scholars, started to draft a letter to sound the alarm about the plight of China's new generation of migrant workers. The letter was issued on May 18 and has been published by different newspapers. Lu has also handed over a request to Foxconn to conduct field surveys at the company during his summer break in July.

Lu's research is on China's rural development and migrant workers. Grand Construction Site: A Panoramic View of Migrant Workers in the Construction Industry, a new book Lu co-authored with two other sociologists, is to come out later this year. Beijing Review reporter Li Li interviewed Lu on the causes behind the tragedy at Foxconn.

Beijing Review: What do you think are the reasons behind the rash of suicides of young workers in Foxconn?

Lu Huilin: I don't think that it is merely due to individual psychological problems. The root cause is the general social background. The common cause behind the rash of suicides is that migrant workers cannot see any hope of living a better life in cities. They share the dream of becoming full urban residents and enjoying all amenities. But they cannot see how their current work at a factory can help them realize this dream and their jobs become nothing more than a tool to stay alive. This disillusionment is common among China's migrant workers, especially the young generation of migrant workers, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s.

In terms of China's role in the global economy, for the last two decades China has been known as the "factory of the world." China's development model relies on its huge pool of cheap labor, the majority of which comes from rural areas. Although the development model has brought the country miraculous economic growth, farmers-turned-migrant workers themselves enjoy very little of the fruit of the economic success. Part of the proof is that since China started to implement minimum wage standards, most frontline workers have been paid little more than the local compulsory minimum wages, which barely covers the expenses of their basic lives. They have to work overtime to obtain a little more.

It could be a long time before China transforms its development model from "Made in China" to "Created in China." During this time, how can the living conditions of migrant workers be improved?

For a long time China's labor-intensive industries will continue to play a significant role in providing job opportunities and boosting economic growth in China. But labor-intensive companies should not just give workers minimum wages and poor working conditions.

Migrant workers are paid according to their living costs in rural areas, which is institutional discrimination against them. They are regarded as labor instead of laborers. Their needs as human beings, including needs for family life, are not satisfied.

There is a severe imbalance of power between labor and capital in China, where workers are at disadvantage. Without recognizing that, we cannot understand why such a successful company like Foxconn paid workers minimum wages.

Companies should give workers a decent wage—which is definitely not the compulsory minimum wage—due respect and the opportunity for them to share the company's profits and growth. The government has the responsibility to provide policy support for migrant workers to settle in cities and to address their needs in housing, children's education, healthcare and a social safety net.

Migrant workers should no longer be treated as "migrants" but urban residents who are entitled to all the services and welfare as other residents.

What motivated you and your eight fellow scholars to issue the public letter?

All of us have been studying China's migrant workers for many years. This year's "No.1 Central Document" issued on January 31 mentioned the new generation of migrant workers for the first time, officially putting improving their lives on the government agenda. We were all encouraged by this new policy. But the spate of suicides at Foxconn in May shocked us, forcing us to re-evaluate the severity of this problem. The government should come up with a timetable and concrete measures to address this problem.

Therefore, we decided to issue a public letter to increase the public's awareness of this issue. We believe that psychological consultations provided to Foxconn's workers can be temporarily effective in alleviating their anxiety, but the fundamental social problem behind these tragedies must be solved as well. Only by doing so can we avoid similar incidents in the future.

Your letter reads "the problems of the new generation of migrant workers can only be solved by the efforts of the government, enterprises and laborers themselves." What can migrant workers do to improve their own conditions?

They should unite to fight for their rights and interests. Of course, they should use positive means rather than committing suicide.

Take migrant workers' obtainment of a decent salary for example, we cannot put all our hope on the conscience and corporate social responsibility of companies or on government interference. Organized labor should strive for reasonable wage levels through trade unions and a balanced relationship between labor and management.

What's your comment on Foxconn's latest decision to give factory workers a 30-percent pay rise?

It is a constructive and substantive gesture, though whether the new salary is a decent salary or not is still negotiable. But the more important thing is whether Foxconn will establish regular mechanisms of protecting workers' rights. We cannot see future pay raises come at the cost of the lives of workers.

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