Photo Gallery: The Life Of Millennial Assembly Line Workers in China

02-01 13:07

(Chinese Version)

In China, the OEM industry had reached its peak and it’s now in decline. Over the past decade, the cost rise of land, resources, and environment, as well as the sharp decrease of the demographic dividend, have brought about a cold winter for OEMs, who have already been experiencing difficult situations. It has become vital for them to come up with a new direction and try to get there. In Shenzhen, a global manufacturing hub, there has been constant news of factories going out of business and moving to another city. However, there are also successful cases where traditional factories transformed themselves.

This time TMTPost'sPhoto Gallery visited an OEM plant in Shenzhen to capture the life of the young faces working at the assembly lines of the factory. We want to get a glimpse of how they live their everyday life, how they work, how they think and how their relationship with the factory is changing.

October 23rd, 2017, Zhongyuntai Science and Technology Industrial Park, Shenzhen. Workers were busy at the assembly lines in the factory of KOMKIA. This OEM plant with more than 200 employees has been around for 13 years, focusing on manufacturing smart hardware and other electronic products.

The factory’s 200-something employees at the assembly lines are mostly millennials. There are even a few 16 or 17 years old workers working at the assembly line. The workers work 22 days per month and eight hours every day. The salary is not high. The base monthly pay is only ¥2,130. As for the overtime pay, it’s counted as ¥18.36 per extra hour from Monday to Friday, and ¥24.8 per hour on weekends. Technicians that are responsible for more technical functions such as soldering, QC testing etc. would be able to get an occupational subsidy of around ¥200. Therefore, the salary of the workers varies from ¥3000 to ¥6000 every month, depending on the order volume the factory receives.

07:35 am, October 23rd. Zhang Wengen, a worker at the OEM plant, was running towards to workshop with breakfast in his mouth. The workers’ dormitory is actually not far from the workshop, which is only three minutes away, but Zhang wanted to go there earlier for attendance to avoid the long queue. Zhang also works at the very front of his assembly line, meaning he has to be at his position earlier than others so as to maintain smooth operation.

After Zhang checked in for attendance and entered the workshop, his colleagues queued up at the door, some of whom still had their breakfast with them. A morning meeting will be organized every day at the assembly line while the attendance machine automatically shuts off at 7:51 am every morning. People who come late would have to check in with their clearance card. Everyone is allowed to do so less than three times in a month. In a situation where the number exceeds three, a punishment of ¥10 salary reduction will be imposed on the late worker.

Zhang Wengen is a 19-year-old young fella coming from Hunan province. Zhang has been working in this factory for six months. At the age of 13, Zhang left home and started to work despite his young age. This job at KOMKIA is already the sixth job he took on. The assembly line that Zhang belongs to assemble a Bluetooth radio that sells incredibly well in the market. Tens of components are shipped from different factories in Shenzhen to this workshop and assembled by Zhang Wengen and his co-workers before being shipped to the client.

The entire assembly process of this product is conducted by over 80 workers, with each one of them responsible for their own procedure. This naturally requires the coordinated collaboration of every worker. Every day, over 2000 products are being assembled on this assembly line through intensive human labor and collaboration.

Zhang Wengen’s duty is to patch up the case of the products. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even remember what I am doing at the assembly line,” he said, saying that his mind would just go blank after hours of repetitive work. When this happens, he would consciously hum a song or chat a little with his co-workers around to stay focused. When working at the assembly line, Zhang would also think about the future. He would image what his future wife would look like, what their baby would be called, what their grandchildren would be called, what kind of business he could do if going back to his hometown for entrepreneurship, what he should bring home for the Spring Festival, what kind of stories he could share with his families…

According to Zhang, his father passed away when he was little, leaving him no choice but dropped out from middle school and started working to support the family. He just didn’t want to rely on his mother, who takes up odd jobs to earn money. “I was like if I just go out there and start working, then I wouldn’t need to ask my families for money. So I dropped out and left home,” Zhang recalled. Zhang’s teachers from middle school tried to persuade him into going back to school, but he didn’t listen to them. “I just left,” he said. “I was able to change my life because I started working.” Zhang Wengen didn’t regret his decision to drop out from school.

The material handler Zhong Xin is at the same age as Zhang Wengen. Born in 1998 in Hubei province, Zhong graduated from a vocational school that focuses on automobile maintenance two years ago and started a one-year internship at an automobile maintenance factory. Later he came to KOMKIA. “When I was doing that internship, I needed to carry a 40 kg welding gun for 12 hours every day. It was extremely exhausting,” he said. Zhong Xin’s physical capacity didn’t really allow him to engage in labor activities that required highly intensive labor like that. That’s why he left the factory, anticipated for the possibilities out there. Now Zhong Xin works at this OEM as a material handler who deliver relevant materials for the assembly lines. Zhong travels back and forth between the workshop and the warehouse, and help out with the assembling when he is free and has nothing else to do.

The 22-year-old solderer Chen Zexin come from the southern Chinese province Guangxi. He came to Shenzhen for job opportunities at the age of 15 and has been working as an assembly line worker since then. “My family is not well-off. And both my sister and brother need financial support. So I just left home and began working since I don’t like going to school anyway,” Chen said. Chen is a technician, which means he is able to receive the ¥200 subsidy. In fact, Chen learned to solder on his own. He has processed a diverse variety of products, from speakers, VR box, power bank, smart wristband, to watches and robots etc. These smart products are both familiar and foreign to Chen. Even though his line of work involves these products every day, he never really knows or cares about at what price these products are being sold, where to buy them, and what is the target audience. From his perspective, these things do not really matter to him.

At the assembly line, the workers were assembling a tablet product designed for early education. “The worst-case scenario an OEM can encounter is relying on only one client or one product,” a director at the OEM plant recalled. “One of my friends used to run a larger factory that only had one client. Basically, they were making set-top boxes. It lasted for a few years and they made a lot of money. But they didn’t know that the market was shifting and failed to identify the risk. Eventually, Internet-based set-top boxes took over the market. The factory client couldn’t keep up with the market trend, and the factory went down with it as well.” However, assembly line workers do not care about what kind of products they are making since it does not influence the salary they receive from the factory.

The profit that OEMs make is based on the gap of the labor cost. The assembling procedure the factory showed to Online Gallery was a perfect example of maximizing every second. The working procedure of the assembly line workers is designed at second, meaning they need to be precise and fast. To improve production efficiency, the key lies in the improving the efficiency of the functions that consume more time. “There are only two ways to improve the efficiency. We either hire more workers for these functions, or we employ machines or tools that could increase the efficiency,” a director explained. For instance, when assembling a speaker, tightening the screws on the back case takes more time, which drags down the entire assembling pace. Under this circumstance, we either employ more workers on this, or we adopt semi-automated screwdrivers etc.

“Ensure supply,” a slogan is written on the wall of the workshop. Facing the challenge presented by the decline of the OEM industry, this factory had also considered about making their own brand and products to transform itself. But, it’s just simply too hard for the company to do so. “R&D costs too much. And it takes a long period before something actually comes out. But we have so many employees depending on us. We simply just can’t afford that,” a director explained to TMTPost. Generally speaking, if an OEM company has any R&D department, its clients would be more cautious in making orders. The reason is simple, they fear the OEM would replicate their products. “We just have different professional functions in the industry and we are not able to make the big money. We can only focus on high-quality OEM to build up our reputation, attracting high-end clients through it.” The OEM’s clients include giants like IFLYTEK and MAOKING etc.

Besides the lunch break, the workers have a ten-minute break every afternoon. The director at the factory adopts a friendlier management approach when dealing with the workers who are mostly millennials. “They are just different. If the director scolded at a worker who was born in the 80s, he might cry but would continue to do his work since it’s not easy to find a job at that time and people had a different mentality. But for millennials born in the 80s and 80s, it’s very different. Money might not be their main concern. Their parents might still be working and giving them money monthly. So it’s likely for them to just resign if they are not happy with the job. Some people might even just leave without caring about their salary,” a managing director who has 20 years of experience told us, saying that it’s not difficult for a twenty-something young person to find a job as an assembly line worker in Shenzhen. “Factories are moving inland because it’s getting more difficult to recruit new workers here in Shenzhen.”

The lunch break started as workers gradually checked out from the workshop. In these OEM factories, workers come and go on a rapid basis. In the beginning of the year, there might be around 200 workers, who would resign and get replaced quickly. It’s very common for workers to stay in one factory for a few months and then just leave for factories that need workers to work overtime to increase production efficiency for coming deadlines. The mentality here is that workers need to work overtime to earn more money. During off seasons, OEM factories would also take orders that bring lower profit to ensure the workers have work to do every day. Basically, the factories are doing it to keep the workers from leaving to make sure they would still have the production capacity when quality orders do come. In general, people find this kind of jobs through friends’ recommendation. For instance, the factory we visited for this issue of Photo Gallery even offer a recommendation fee (male worker ¥300 female worker¥500) to the recommender if the recommended person works for full three months at the factory.

Zhang Wengen had a quick lunch at a fast food restaurant in the industrial zone. A meal costs around ¥10 to ¥15 here. According to Zhang, his maximum expense for a month is one thousand something. In September, he had a lot of overtime shifts and little days off. But in return, he was able to make six thousand. This excited him since it’s the highest salary he had gotten in the past few months in Shenzhen. “Every time, it’s exciting to see the money in my bank account. It makes me feel like I have more choices, that I can use this money to do things,” said Zhang. He would save up some money for living expense and send the rest to his mom.

After lunch, they still had 30 minutes of break left. Zhang returned to the dorm and tried to take a short nap. The workers stay in the dorms in the industrial zone. The accommodation is free. They only need to pay for utilities. However, less than half of the workers chose to stay at the free dorms while others chose to rent an apartment in neighboring towns so as to enjoy some personal space, most of whom are married couples, couples, or people who come to work together.

Material handler Zhong Xin’s dorm is right next to Zhang Wengen’s. He has a small goal: Work three years and make ¥50,000. He wants to run an animal breeding business after returning home. “My family used to breed sheep. If I could make this sum of money then I wouldn’t need my parents’ support for this. My dad is working at a construction site. He is old now. When I start my sheep business, he could also come home. He won’t need to work outside,” Zhong explained. Unfortunately, Zhong is still a bit far from his goal. Therefore, he is limiting his expense and tries to avoid extra expenses. “I don’t go out during the holidays. I would just stay in the dorm and play my smartphone. Going out would mean more spending. I need to save money,” Zhong said.

During the ten-minute break in the afternoon, Zhang Wengen was taking a small nap at the workshop table. Zhang has been working for six years. He has worked at the restaurant, at construction site etc., experiencing the ups and downs as a migrant worker. From his perspective, his job at his factory is satisfying, or let’s say his favorite one. “They have many orders and a decent workplace. Most importantly, they pay us punctually,” he explained his rationality. “Of course the salary is higher at the construction site. But they pay us yearly. It’s risky.” Zhang Wengen also has experienced all those clichés of not being able to get his salary from the construction site.

The bell rang, calling it a day. 200 workers started to walk towards to the exit. The smog in Beijing had worsened on that day, bringing up the orders on smart masks and air purifiers. These workers would have to come back in one hour for overtime.

Zhang Wengen, Chen Zexin, and Zhong Xin walked inside the industrial zone. Whether is finding a wife or staring an animal breeding business, these three men have their own vision for the future. The orders the factory received had piled up and the shift had been arranged to the year-end, which meant it would be super busy for them soon. But this is also why they stay in this factory for the very first place.

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The article is published with authorization from the author@ISHOTIT, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated byGarrett Lee (Senior Translator atPAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.

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