Behind the scenes with Samsung's Chinese factory girls

Faced with limited opportunities, young women choose electronics manufacturing for the relatively high salaries

IDG News Service: Michael Kan

"It's pretty tiring," she explained, having to test the functions of each camera that comes her way. "The pressure can be big sometimes." But despite the stress, Zhao's job at the factory is a good one, she said. Air conditioning in the dorms, clean facilities and what she considers high pay are some of the biggest perks.

"I don't want to change my job; I think it's pretty good," said Zhao, who can earn between 2,000 and 4,000 yuan ($315 to $630) a month depending on how much overtime she does. "I feel the salary is enough. I don't spend that much."

Working conditions at Chinese manufacturing plants have come under close scrutiny, yet jobs at the factories remain some of the most coveted in China for workers like Zhao who have limited career opportunities. For them, it's about earning a decent salary even if the work is highly monotonous with few, if any, long-term benefits. IDG News Service visited Tianjin with a labor rights activist to interview factory workers for this story.

"I'm just here to make money," said a 23-year-old woman surnamed Wang, who also works at Samsung's camera factory in Tianjin. "A lot of people just come here to make money," she added.

Samsung's factory at the Micro-electronics Industrial Park in Tianjin is the company's largest in the country, with an estimated 50,000 workers employed there by Samsung and its suppliers, according to a labor expert. Most of the workers assemble mobile phones, TVs, LEDs and cameras, among other products, and live in nearby dorms.

Wang, who wished to give only her surname, has been employed at the Samsung camera factory for about six months. In a day she will assemble 200 to 300 camera lenses.

"You just keep doing the same thing over and over," she said. "There is nothing really to like, but nothing to really dislike either."

Schools across China provide many of the workers at her factory, she said. Some are recent graduates while others work as interns.

"Some workers have only just graduated from middle school or high school. They can't do other jobs," she said. "They don't understand the other industries so they work here to make money."

While the workers made their jobs sound no better or worse than at factories in other parts of the world, labor groups say more disturbing trends lie beneath the surface. For instance, the Samsung factories tend to hire mainly females between the ages of 18 and 22, according to an investigator with Hong Kong-based China Labor Research Center. That's because younger, less experienced workers are easier to control and less likely to assert their rights, he said.

On Tuesday, New York-based China Labor Watch released a new investigative report into eight Samsung factories in China. It cites what it called a "long list of illegal and inhuman violations" including forced overtime, underage workers, and verbal and physical abuse.

Samsung could not immediately comment on that report, but on Monday, in response to an earlier investigation, it said it had a "zero tolerance policy" on child labor violations and that it was auditing its factories to ensure they comply with its policies and with local laws.

Samsung workers interviewed by IDG said their main complaint was how monotonous and dull their work is.

"The work we do now has nothing to do with what we learned in school," said a 21-year-old worker, surnamed Meng, who studied computer graphics and design at a trade school. She now spends eight hours a day producing motherboards for mobile phones, and sometimes works a further 12 hours on weekends, depending on Samsung's needs.

Meng came to work at the Samsung factory two years ago with 70 classmates from her school in Shandong province. Many of those classmates are no longer there. "They left because it wasn't really a good fit, or they were here too long and they wanted to learn something else. Some didn't like it," she said.

While workers from Samsung-owned factories spoke well of their monthly wages, pay at neighboring suppliers to Samsung is generally significantly lower.

Twenty-seven-year-old Xue Junfen worked at a factory operated by Yaguang Nypro Precision Molding, assembling and inspecting mobile phone casings for three years before leaving in March to join a Chinese NGO (non-governmental organization). When she started at the factory in 2009 she was making 700 yuan as a base salary. That climbed to 900 yuan the following year and 1,160 yuan by 2011.

With overtime, however, workers were generally earning 2,300 yuan a month, Xue said. But to do so, she said, they had to work 12 hours a day throughout the month.

During her time there, Xue assembled and inspected phone casings for Samsung, Nokia and Research In Motion. In a single day, she would look over 4,300 to 5,600 casings, her job sometimes to check if the ID stickers behind a phone casing were properly placed.

"Workers didn't understand what these components were for," she said. "You are making this product over and over again, but you don't know what it does."

Xue arrived at the factory after dropping out of middle school. "There was a lot of pressure and the quality of education was not that high," she said. "I thought there was more to learn being out in the world, rather than staying in school."

Xue said many like her choose jobs in electronics manufacturing because the overtime means they can earn the highest salaries. At the same time, the facilities tend to be clean and air-conditioned

"I feel like there is no reason for anyone to feel pity for us. We are just here to make money. This is very normal," she said. "You put in work, and you get rewarded for it."

Xue now works at an NGO that has an office near the industrial park and provides education services to workers. That includes supplying books and computers and bringing in volunteers from colleges to teach different subjects.

"You don't really gain anything from these manufacturing jobs. It's just a short-term way to make money," she said. "If you waste your youth on the assembly line, then that's a big loss."

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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