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Behind the scenes with Samsung's Chinese factory girls

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

By Michael Kan, IDG News Service
September 05, 2012 10:40 AM ET

IDG News Service - Like many her age, 19-year-old Zhao Caixia left her hometown in the Chinese province of Gansu to see the world.A That world now revolves around a Samsung factory in the Chinese city of Tianjin, where she spends eight to 12 hours a day inspecting cameras before they're shipped out.A

"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 (US$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.

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