“We are all migrants in some sense, so when we help migrant workers, we are helping ourselves.” —Li Tao, Cultural Communication Center for Facilitators
“How can [companies] leverage their buying power to help workers’ lives, not just their rights?” —Jason Ho, BSR
“Stop treating them as cheap labor—they do not want to be viewed as a set of hands. So are we truly viewing them as human beings, and does the factory management support that view?” —Manyi Yu, Business Link Consulting
The voices of young female migrant workers in China sharing their hopes, fears, and dreams for fulfilling work and a balanced family life in a video opened the session. Their perspectives sent a powerful message that, as times rapidly change in China’s economic and manufacturing environment, so do the workers. A change in workers increasingly requires a change in management practices. Ho framed the session with a question about how to better understand workers’ needs to lead fulfilling lives as a powerful impetus for change in current systems.
Tao presented his work exploring the definition of happiness through a female migrant factory worker’s perspective through surveys. China has 250 million migrant workers, 100 million of whom are younger than thirty. The older generation of migrant workers focused on earning money to achieve a better quality of life, while the newer generation has expressed a desire for career development, a sense of community, and deepening their family values as factors for happiness. The new urban generation of migrant workers is contributing to social systems and structures—a strikingly different focus than that of the older generations, who are framed as uneducated and vulnerable, Tao commented. With pictures, Tao humanized migrant workers and pointed out that since we are all migrant workers in a way, this is about each of us.
Yu joined the stage to present her work discovering the world through the lens of a migrant worker by living in a factory dormitory for two years. This experience taught her how perceptions of new workers differ from reality, including the assumption that new migrant workers are impossible—unwilling to tolerate hardship, hard to recruit and retain, constantly demanding wage increases, and willing to strike. Yu’s dormitory experience paints a different picture of these workers who want to maintain work-life balance, be a positive force beyond factory walls, and seek opportunities for career development—all of which are difficult for them to achieve under the existing model.
Historically contentious issues, such as working hours and employee retention, may have new root causes, Yu pointed out. In the past, factory managers typically responded that workers wanted to work overtime to support their families and left when the pay didn’t meet their needs, but today’s migrant workers are less interested in overtime. They instead desire more personal free time and a workplace that offers them products they are proud to make, opportunities for career training and advancement, and the possibility of having a family. Female workers expressed increased interest in quitting their jobs to raise their families and were willing to learn new skills even at the expense of making less money. Money is no longer the dominant factor in worker satisfaction, according to Yu’s work.
Yet rising questions about China running out of cheap labor may be misleading, Yu cautioned. Since the new generation of Chinese migrant workers is more educated, increasingly energetic, and reasonably cheap, the supply chain involves less risk. Yu pointed to a few key tenets that will further enable change. The first is reliance on cheap labor, which has long fed many industry problems and can undermine product quality and worker pride. Second, partnerships must build community and improve factory management. The panel closed with Ho highlighting the increased transparency that has driven factories to take action, as workers publicly fight for their right to be treated as human beings, not just a set of hands.
Audience participants asked the panelists questions about scale, worker engagement through mobile phones, and worker hotlines (to which the panelists consistently recommended more holistic approaches). Then Yu and Tao explained that scale is important, but differing needs require tailored approaches to address the root cause, making scale difficult. These approaches, if carried out well, can help build trust; complementing them with the efforts of community organizations and NGOs will better address workers’ diverse needs. Factories often struggle most with cultivating a culture of community. Brands can play a strategic role in supporting worker associations and social outlets to define workers as complex humans who deserve to be treated with respect.