Migrant workers in China, who have among the lowest incomes in the coastal regions, have an unexpected friend in their everyday lives, a friend worth up to four months of their salary.
Their mobile phone.
They use it to find work and flirt with their lovers.
Migrant workers in south China's Guangdong Province, for instance, like the models with famous imported brand names such as Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung, according to a research team that have conducted field studies on mobile telephony and migrant workers since mid-2003.
One of the team members, Patrick Law, said that after in-depth interviews with dozens of migrant workers in Dongguan, a city in Guangdong, he found that mobile phones have helped the migrants network with their kinsmen and develop new friends.
And such networking is helping migrants empower themselves, as they can obtain abundant information about jobs by using mobile phones, said Law, an assistant professor with Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
In the past, channels for accessing information about the job market were very limited, and finding a job was very inconvenient. The migrants had to go around to factories in different regions to see whether there were vacancies.
Speaking at an international conference on mobile communication yesterday in Beijing, Law told a story of how mobile phones have strengthened the bargaining power of migrants with their factory proprietors.
Law said a factory manager in Dongguan, whose business is producing garments, once told him he was afraid of the use of cell phones among his workers.
"The manager said that during lunch break, workers can use short message services (SMS) to share information about salaries, benefits, promotion opportunities and working conditions of other factories," Law said.
"The proprietor said that once seven workers, all belonging to one family, left his factory after receiving short messages during the lunch break.
"As a result, the proprietor had to increase the salaries and require less overtime work in order to keep the other workers in his factory."
The professor also quoted the proprietor as saying: "If they have less information about the job market, they will be less likely to move around Even though we installed some kind of interference technology, they can still call their kinsmen or friends after work. The only way to minimize their contact with others is to move our factory to a place where mobile phones cannot receive any signals at all."
Yang Shanhua, another team member who is a professor with Peking University, said his study found that migrants usually buy expensive phones with features they don't even use.
"This seems to show that the mobile phone has become a status symbol," he said.
"Mobile phones also enable the workers to strengthen contact with their boyfriends or girlfriends, especially with those who are still living in their home villages.
"My interviews have found that when the migrants finish their work and go back to their dormitory, what they mainly do before going to sleep is send text messages."
(China Daily October 21, 2005)