From: Grant Callaghan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon 23 Dec 2002 - 04:02:07 GMT
Thursday, November 28, 2002
Women power keeps delta boomtowns moving
DOUG YOUNG of Reuters in Shenzhen
Behind a long panel of glass windows, row on row of young Chinese women sit at the Nam Tai Electronics factory, their bodies and faces covered by blue smocks, matching gauze caps and surgical masks.
The building hums with the whir of machinery, the women's eyes lit up by a flood of fluorescent light.
The soft but steady noise lies at the heart of an industry powering China into the 21st century, as the Asian nation supplies much of the world with billions of dollars' worth of electronics, from toys to televisions to cellular phones.
But the buzz also hides serious social problems, ranging from sexual harassment to stress, as thousands of often poor, young girls move from the countryside to Pearl River Delta boomtowns like Shenzhen to seek their fortunes.
Called ''dagong mei'', or little-sister labourers, the new generation of young women powering China's factories often stay for about three years in the city before returning to faraway places like Sichuan and Hunan to marry in their home villages.
The trend is typical of developing societies in Asia, and mirrors Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, said Pun Ngai, a social sciences professor at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.
''They imagine young Chinese girls are more hard-working, more obedient and easier to control,'' said Ms Pun, who spent six months at one such factory as part of her research.
Factory managers say women are more patient and attentive to detail than many men.
The women, meanwhile, say they are just looking for a chance to make some money and have a little fun.
''The character of women is to do things very carefully, from assembly to checking monitors,'' said Bonnie Yu, a spokeswoman at a Nokia joint venture factory making mobile phones in the town of Dongguan.
At a factory run by VTech Holdings, the largest supplier of cordless phones to the United States, about 80 per cent of the production line workers are women, said Simon Lau, manager of operations.
The average worker earns about 700 yuan (US$84.50) per month, and the number of workers at the factory ranges from 11,000 at low season to 20,000 at the peak, Mr Lau said.
''We provide them with free dorms, free meals as well as entertainment, karaoke and a disco in the factory,'' said Mr Lau, leading a group of reporters on a recent tour of the factory.
On a Friday afternoon at the VTech plant, rows of women in yellow smocks stood before chest-high work stations, each taking printed circuit boards as they passed by on a conveyor belt, soldering a few points and then putting them back.
One slight woman, Xu Jin, was from the town of Wudanshan in distant Hubei province. She said she would earn about 500 yuan a month in her hometown, or about half of what she makes in the Dongguan plant.
''I came here with friends,'' she said, adding that she planned to stay three to four years. ''The pace of life here is much faster than in Hubei.
City life stresses
But factory work in the big city also creates a number of physical and social problems for young women not used to the fast pace of urban life and rigorous working conditions, said Ms Pun from the University of Science and Technology.
Long working hours and absence from home can produce a lot of stress.
''I like working here, but I sometimes miss my family,'' said 21-year-old Wei Weiyan.
She said she had come to the factory with some friends three years ago, and would like to stay on if possible.
''There are huge differences between city life and rural life,'' Ms Pun said. ''There's a lot of hardship for them, especially when they have to work long hours and learn work skills by themselves.''
Apart from the physical stresses, women from the countryside must also cope with social problems like sexual harassment, in a world where about 70 per cent of supervisors are male, Ms Pun said.
''The kind of harassment is quite subtle, but is almost everywhere,'' she said.
''There's a lot of verbal abuse, as well as behavioural abuse. For example, when the supervisors do interviews, they will touch the women's hands. They will also give lots of comments on their bodies.''
In such cases, Ms Pun said, hometown bonds that many of the women share also function as support networks.
''Most of these women will form some sort of ethnic or kinship enclave to cope with the industrialised network,'' Ms Pun said. ''This kind of kinship network helps them to cope with life in the workplace.''
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