UNEMPLOYMENT, PICKY WORKERS AND LABOR SHORTAGES IN CHINA

UNEMPLOYMENT AND UNEMPLOYMENT STATISTICS IN CHINA

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Looking for work in Guangdong
The unemployment rate in China was 4.9 percent in February 2010. The figure is of debatable validity. “Reliable unemployment statistics are hard to come by,” Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times. “The official registered urban unemployment rate for the end of 2008 was 4.2 percent, up from 4 percent in 2007; it was the first time the official rate had risen after five consecutive years of decline.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 24, 2009]

In the 1990s unemployment was problem and still is undeveloped areas. China's official unemployment rate in the 1990s was between two and three percent, a statistic considered ridiculously understated. The real unemployment figure may have been as high as 12 percent. By one estimate there were 15 million unemployed people in the cities and perhaps 10 times number in the countryside. At one point China may have had as many unemployed former industrial workers as the rest of the world combined.

Today the government reports an unemployment figure of around 4 percent but the true figure is believed to be much higher than that. An estimated 30 million workers lost jobs from 1996 to 2004 as a result of government restructuring of state-owned companies, causing widespread protest and contributing to masses of migrant workers. In recent years many factories have laid off workers as they have retooled for higher-value products and dropped production as a result of the economic slump of the late 2000s. In urban areas the labor markets exceed the number of new jobs created by 20 percent.

Economic growth has not necessarily translated to job growth. While economic growth has been close to 10 percent, employment growth has averaged 1 percent to 3 percent in the 1990s, China needs to create 24 million jobs a year to absorb newcomers to the work force. In years the number of people laid off from inefficient state-owned companies has outpaced the number of getting new jobs as a result economic growth.

“The figure looks all right, but the real situation could be much more serious, as migrant workers and newly graduated college students were not included in the government count, Tang Min, deputy secretary of the China Development Research Foundation, told Xinhua.”

“The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a respected research organization, did a study last year that put the urban unemployment rate at 9.4 percent. That number included migrant workers in the cities. The group did not do any studies with the same methodology for previous years, so there are no comparative numbers.”

Laid Off Workers in China

About 59 million people---more than the entire population of South Korea---were laid off in China between 1995 and 2005 during a process of restructuring and closing down inefficient state enterprises and state farms. The number of jobs at stare-owned factories dropped from 110 million in 1995 to 62 million in 2005.

Many workers were laid off from state-owned factories in the 1990s and early 2000s. Over 10 million workers laid off in 1997. Over 13 million workers were laid off in 1998 and 8 million were laid off in 1999. Some were given "squid fried" (pink slip). Particularly hard hit were workers in the northwest industrial cities like Harbin and Shenyang, where factories laid off 20 percent of their workers.

"Forced internal retirement" is one way state-owned businesses quickly trim their staff and become competitive. Although the central government has specific policies on when and how "internal retirement" can happen, because of the lack of a functioning trade union, "internal retirement" has become an easy way for companies to depress salary and arbitrarily fire workers. After being forced into retirement, one Chinese worker tried to organize coworkers who were also forced to retire to try to present their case to government agencies and seek redress. For two years their case went nowhere.

Many laid-off factory workers find that when they lose their jobs they have no pensions, severance pay or income. Lucky ones might get a $61 a month pension. Some received bonuses. Other nothing. Those that feel cheated had little recourse. One couple in Shenyang laid off from an electric company when they were in their 50s were denied their benefits but required to keep making pension payments until they were 60. They petitioned the government and took their case all the way to the Chinese President. For their trouble they were thrown in jail.

The private sector is expected to soak up the jobless. Many workers at state-owned factories have been have found new jobs that pay better than their old ones. Some have taken to the streets and sidewalks to earn money, selling tools, soap, candy and cigarettes, hawking ankle massages and doing sidewalk haircuts. Some unemployed live off $13 a month and lack health care, housing and insurance benefits and are hurt by big medical bills and high rents.

Many demonstrations and protest have been the result of workers being laid off from their jobs. There were large protests by workers in Shenyang and Hebei in 1997 by workers. In 1998 in Chongqing workers set up road black, destroyed machines and held demonstrations and strikes more than 100 times. In Tianjin, packaging workers worried they were about to get laid off, seized six foreign managers and held them hostages in their factory for 40 hours.

The global financial crisis was hard on cheap labor and migrant labor as many people lost their jobs as factories cut back their work forces. One laid-off migrant worker at a machinery factory whose foreign ordered dried up in Fujian Province told AFP, “We really don’t know what to do. We can’t go home, but there are few jobs here and they don’t pay enough.”

The trouble was most acute in southern Guangdong Province, China’s manufacturing heartland, where one-fifth of factories in major cities closed by the end of 2008. Thousands of workers gathered outside factories demanding back wages and severance pay and mobbed labor offices checking out job listings. Most jobs offered pay between $175 and $370 a month about 50 percent less than early in 2008.

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Laid Off Workers from Chinese State Enterprises

The reorganization of state enterprises in the late 1990s saw mass lay-offs, with 10 million losing their jobs annually.

The millions of factory workers who lost their jobs during the effort to restructure inefficient state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s tried to win some sort of compensation or redress but were eventually silenced. In 2000, the Supreme People Court put an end to any hope that the legal system might adjudicate such disputes, saying that plaintiffs from state companies had no standing in Chinese courts.

Hong Kong-based labor researcher Geoff Crothall told The Guardian: “It's not just about state-owned enterprises [being taken over] but about the lack of consultation with workers in general---managers presenting arbitrary, unilateral decisions...In most cases [redundancy pay] is a pretty derisory sum. Sometimes they get pension benefits, sometimes they don't. If people made redundant are middle-aged or elderly their job prospects are very slim, especially if they have been doing one job all their lives. If you are getting into your mid-30s, its increasingly difficult to find a job.”

Laid-Off Workers in a Workers’ State: Unemployment with Chinese Characteristics edited by Thomas B. Gold, William J. Hurst, Jaeyoun Won, and Qiang Li (Palgrave Macmillan 2009)

Chinese Workers Let Go by Banks Are Putting Up a Fight

White-collar workers are also starting to put a fights. A few days after the Agricultural Bank of China made its stock market debut in July 2010, bringing in $22 billion for the largest public offering ever, dozens of former bank employees who had been laid off stealthily gathered outside the headquarters of China’s central bank. There, after distributing small Chinese flags, they quickly pulled on red and blue T-shirts that read, Protect the Rights of Downsized Bank Workers. By the time they had unfurled their protest banners, police officers had swept everyone into five waiting public buses. By 8 a.m., when the People Bank of China opened its doors for business, the only sign of the rally was a strand of police tape. [Source: Andrew Jacobs The New York Times, August 15, 2010]

Similar public protests have been staged in Beijing and provincial cities. Former bank employees have stormed branch offices to mount sit-ins. “A few of the more foolhardy have met at Tiananmen Square to distribute fliers before plainclothes police officers snatched them away. Strategizing via online message boards and text messages, they speak in code and frequently change cellphone numbers. Their acts of defiance are never mentioned in state-run news media. According to one organizer, a scrappy former bank teller named Wu Lijuan, there are at least 70,000 people seeking to regain their old jobs or receive monetary compensation, a sizable wedge of the 400,000 who were laid off during a decade-long purge.” [Ibid]

“Like many other state-owned companies, the banks slashed payrolls and restructured to raise profitability and make themselves more attractive to outside investors. They tossed us out like garbage, Wu, 44, said before a recent protest, scanning fellow restaurant patrons for potential eavesdroppers. All we’re asking for is justice and maybe to serve as a model for others who have been wronged.” [Ibid]

The former bank employees have no independent trade union or association to take up their cause. To be middle-aged and live off your elderly parents is humiliating, and it can become unbearable, said Huang Gaoying, 49, a teller who was dismissed from the Industrial and Commercial Bank in 2002. According to an informal tally by protest leaders, dozens of former bank staff members most of them unsuccessful at finding new jobs have committed suicide. [Ibid]

“What the government fears most are people capable of organizing, and the bank workers have discovered their power,” Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said. “The sad thing is that they’re not going to succeed because the more organized you are, the more harsh the government reaction.” [Ibid]

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paint factory

Government Worries About Unemployment and Labor Discontent in China

The government encourages entrepreneurial spirit as way to find jobs for people laid off from state jobs. In Shanghai a special effort has been made to encourage males over 40, who lack skills wanted by modern companies, to start their own business.

The Communist Party, whose legitimacy is pegged to maintaining economic growth, is very nervous about high unemployment rates, labor discontent and frustrated workers and job seekers. For Chinese authorities, this is an issue with serious political and social implications that will impact the country's stability. During the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 the government ordered state-owned companies not to lay people off. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 24, 2009, Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 3, 2009]

Labor disputes and protests surged in 2008, as laid-off workers took to the streets of factory cities to demand back pay owed to them. There have also been links to a poor economic situation and spikes in the crime rate.

Accordingly, “ensuring economic growth and preserving jobs,” which includes helping university graduates find employment is a priority.

Shrinking Labor Force in China

If anything labor shortages problems could worsen in the future. China currently has 948 million working age people compared to 202 million in the United States. Because of the one-child policy the number of working age people in China will shrink to 860 million in 2050 while the number in the United States will rise to 248 million. The number of young people at work-force entry age (16 to 24) will start dropping off in 2011 and is predicted to fall by a third between 2010 and 2022. This is expected to create labor shortages and wage increases.

As of the mid 2000s, 67.2 percent of China’s population was between 16 and 64. Never before has a country had such a large work force to one time.

Starting in 2015 the immense workforce will start to shrink as the number of workers declines because of the one child policy while the number of workers needed to take care of the aging population will rise. Underemployed rural workers should be able to take up much of the slack.

Things will become more dire in 2050 when the number of people over 60 increases to 334 million, from around 100 million today, with a mind-boggling 100 million 80 or older.

As the working-age population shrinks, labor cost will rise. With little social security and few pensions, China’s boy children will have to support two parents and in many cases four grandparents.

Consequences of China’s Labor Squeeze and the Global Economic Slowdown

Overseas orders are slumping and rising wages are making it tougher to do business in China, Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, said last month. The group represents Hong Kong business people with factories in the Pearl River Delta area, which covers a region including southern Guangdong province. It has about 3,000 company members, mostly manufacturers selling goods overseas. “Many manufacturers are going to contract or close down,” Lau said. [Source: Bloomberg News, February 28, 2012]

Alistair Thornton, China analyst at IHS Global Insight, said Guangdong's huge army of factory staff -- many of them migrant workers -- would go on feeling the effects of the global slowdown. "There's a lot more upward pressure from the labour force as it demands higher wages, but at the same time, it increasingly looks like there's less room in the global economy for the Chinese exporter. There's a conflict there," he said. [Source: Marianne Barriaux, AFP, November 26, 2011]

Ji Shao, a Beijing-based labour expert at Capital University of Economics and Business, said she had just come back from Shenzhen, and painted a pessimistic picture. She said that a huge number of small enterprises could be forced to shut their doors, pressured by high costs, difficulty accessing loans and the global downturn.

Manufacturing is a key driver of growth and employment in China. A fall in month-on-month exports in October -- triggered in part by the deepening eurozone debt crisis -- fuelled fears for the sector. Mark Williams, China economist at Capital Economics, said the level of exports in the country had remained essentially flat from one month to the next since the first quarter of the year.

A survey conducted by banking giant HSBC showed that China's manufacturing activity -- which has largely been contracting in recent months -- slumped to its lowest level in 32 months in November 2012. Analysts say any more negative economic readings will force the government to undergo a significant policy turnaround as leaders, fearing mass unrest, seek to avoid a repeat of the huge job losses during the 2008 global crisis.

Until recently, the government had been focused on fighting soaring inflation and rolled out a series of measures to ease price rises, such as hiking interest rates or curbing the amount of money banks can lend. "Inflation disproportionately affects the poor, and workers in low-cost exporters tend to be the poorer set of the population," said Thornton.

Improving Conditions for Low Cost Labor in China

Over the years, factory conditions have improved. The average salaries for workers rose 14.1 percent in 2005. Many localities have raised minimum wages. Wages at some factories have increased from $50 a month to $250 a month. Average wages in the Shanghai area are now $300 to $400 a month, triple the level in Indonesia, in 2007. A workers at a bicycle factory in Shenzhen can quickly mover up form around $200 a month toe $270 a month if he demonstrate he is efficient.

The conditions in the factory are better and some workers spend their free time taking computer classes and the like to increase their marketable skills so they can get ahead.

Working hours are often determined by how many orders the factory has. Many workers want to works as many hours as possible to earn as much as they can to earn as much money as they can. They sometimes deliberately seek factories that require workers to work long hours.

Factories often known when inspection from American companies are coming, and order massive clean ups before they arrive and often give many workers the day off so floor doesn’t look so crowded.

China is full Horatio Alger stories. It is not uncommon for a day laborer ro work to work his way up to foreman in three years, and literate farmers with a knack for business to become millionaires

Labor Shortages in China

By the mid 2000s labor shortage were prevalent and factories that offered less than appealing work conditions had difficulty finding workers and workers were able to find more opportunities nearer to home and didn’t have to go far from home in the industrial centers on the coast seek work. In 2003 labor shortages began appearing in the Pearl River delta in southern China and have since spread to factories all over China. Nationwide today, by one estimate, there is a shortage of 2.8 million workers.

There are shortage in all skilled levels, but particularly among skilled workers. By one estimate there is a shortage of about two million workers in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. China also suffers from a labor shortage in highly skilled positions such pilots, doctors, lawyers, accountants and IT professionals. One of the problems here is the dream of living abroad. Many Chinese pick up skills in these professions overseas and don’t return home.

When the economy starting recovering after the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 manufacturers in the Pearl River Delta had a hard time finding workers. The owner of an electronics firm told Reuters, “For every 10 people we look for, we can only find two or three.”

Many recruitment centers in the Pearl River Delta see acute labor shortages when factories resume production in February after the New Year break. “I'm 1,000 percent sure the factories won't be able to find enough workers,” said Liu Hong, a manager at the Longguan human resources market in Shenzhen, one of the region's largest. “There will be a shortage of millions,” [Source: James Pomfret, Reuters, January 31, 2011] he said.

Reasons for Labor Shortages in China

The shortage is the result of three decades of rapid economic expansion colliding with demographic changes due to China's one-child policy, economists say. “The overall story is clear---thanks to the decline in births 20 years ago, China's labor pool will likely stop expanding in size very soon,” Stephen Green, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank, said in a research note.

Many skilled workers have found higher wages in the Shanghai area or interior cities such Changsa and Chengdu closer to their home. One worker who quit his job told the New York Times, “If we go to work in Guangdong we work hard all year round but we can’t save very much money. The pay is too low, Whoever pays high, I will go there.” One female worker at a job exchange told the Time of London, “I didn’t like my last job selling houses, so I resigned. I have some education and I think I can do better than that....If I can’t find a good job, then I’ll go farther north.”

the Japanese owner of a clothing maker with a large factory in northern China told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Young Chinese these days tend to quit if they feel they are being worked too hard. Most of them want ti work at companies that offer lots of holidays even if it means earning a bit less...Such being the case, the number of skilled workers is most likely to shrink in China in the future.”

One of the problems with the $586 billion government stimulus package as far as the coastal areas were concerned was that it created lots of jobs in the interior near the home towns of migrant workers, One migrant worker told Reuter, “During the financial crisis many people returned home and once home, they don’t what to come back again.”

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Impact of Labor Shortages in China

“The migrant workers now certainly have a greater number of options than they did, say, just a couple of years ago,” Geoffrey Crothall of China labor Bulletin told Reuters. “Southern China and Guangdong are no longer the only show in town.” In Dongguan in Guangdong, by some estimates, there were 1 million few migrant workers in 2010 than there were a few years earlier. To attract workers better health benefits and housing subsidies were being offered. In Shenzhen labor shortages, wildcat strikes and walkouts have become common Some companies have responded by offering better wages, building better dormitories with video rooms and libraries and offering health and welfare benefits to attract workers.

In some cases less people are coming from the countryside are coming because farmers are earning more for their crops and villagers don’t want to get sucked into the grind of work 15 hours shifts six days a week.

The Japanese clothing entrepreneur told the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2007 “The quality of products made in China was oy its best about three to five years ago, but emplyers went soft on young employees out of fear that they would quit of scolded: the result is a stedy decline in the qualitu of many Chinese products.”

Some factories have had to shut down because they can not find workers willing to work cheap enough to make the products at a competitive prose and companies have moved their facilities to countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Indonesia where they can still find labor forces willing to work for low wages. Thousands of mostly Taiwanese-and Hong Kong-owned factories have left the Pearl River Delta, either moving inland or abroad where it is cheap or closing down.

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief in 2011, “The rash of labor incidents in southern China early last year---including protests in the Chinese units of famous multinationals such as Foxconn and Honda---illustrated that the new generation of workers are much less willing to tolerate harsh terms and conditions than their forebears. The CCP leadership was even forced to acquiesce to Guangdong workers adopting some form of collective-bargaining tactics to improve their wages and working environment. As the labor shortage became more severe, 12 provinces and major cities raised their minimum wage in the first quarter of this year. The increase rate was a whopping 20 percent or more in half of these regions. It is expected that as their bargaining positions continue to improve over the years, Chinese workers may clamor for the right to set up free trade unions, which Beijing deems potentially subversive. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]

Labor Shortages in the Future

In the future labor shortage will become more pronounced across China. Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “The 2010 census revealed that the country’s future workers---Chinese under 14---make up only 16.6 percent of the population, down from 23 percent ten years ago. The State Statistical Bureau indicated that total pool of potential workers---a reference to Chinese aged between 16 to 59---reached 921.48 million in 2010. Yet this cohort is expected to start declining from 2013 onward.

According to Zhong Dajun, head of an economic consultancy in Beijing, at least 10 million new blue-collar workers entered the labor force annually in the mid-to-late 1990s. "Now, this number is down to about 5 million or so," he said. "After five or six years, new entrants to the labor market may dwindle to a mere one to two million a year." The situation is likely to worsen unless eases its one-child-family policy. [Source:Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]

Opportunity of Labor Shortages

Shen Jianguang, a Hong Kong-based economist with Mizuho Securities, argued the labor shortage, expected to plague China in coming years, provides opportunities as well as challenges for the country's economy. “It is an illustration that it is increasingly pressing for China to shift its growth pattern ... Only when the low-scale, labor-intensive sectors are scaled back will the problem ease, which has yet to come,” Shen said.

The decline in the supply of workers may increase Beijing’s drive to go high-tech. Mo Rong, a senior researcher of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, indicated that "the labor shortage will force enterprises to go after an innovation and technology-driven strategy." A central thrust of the 12th Five-Year Plan is to restructure the economy by sidelining labor-intensive "sunset" industries and emphasizing cutting-edge sectors such as IT and bio-technology that demand much fewer workers. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]

Mo Rong has also played down concerns about a labor crunch, saying plenty of workers were willing to work for firms that offer higher pay.

Chinese Workers Working Closer to Home

The impact is especially felt after the Chinese New Year holiday when many workers leave their jobs and do not come back.”I am returning home and won't come back,” 21-year-old Jiang Buyi, who just quit his job at an electronics factory in Shanghai, told AFP as he waited outside a bus station, taking a bite from a McDonald's hamburger. “I am young and have a long way to go. So I need to pick up some skills. I'm going to learn how to do car repairs at a relative's shop,” said Jiang, who is from Sichuan province in the southwest, a traditional source of migrant labor. “Most of my co-workers are returning home to look for jobs too. A minimal salary increase here is nothing. Prices are rising faster than my wages,” he said. [Source: Joan Feng, AFP, March 7, 2011]

Wu Dingli, a 24-year-old from Ziyang, a city in Sichuan, worked for five years in a small electronics factory in Dongguan, the huge, dreary factory town between Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the southeast. She told Time she was laid off in late 2008, when the global financial crisis temporarily crippled Chinese exports to the West. A year later, she found a job on the production line of a company that supplies electric cables to, among other customers, a Hewlett-Packard personal-computer plant in Chongqing. She says she's making "only a bit less" than she did before, "but life is much easier for me here because I'm closer to home. I much prefer this job to the old one."

Chinese Workers Get Better Pay and Working Conditions

Joan Feng wrote in AFP, “As one of the more than 200 million people in China's huge migrant workforce, Lu Jun has had to hustle for jobs his entire life, but suddenly he finds he has more choices and bargaining power than ever. Lu, whose skin is tanned and his navy suit jacket faded from the sun, says he is standing taller these days as he surveys his many options at a state-funded job fair in Shanghai following the annual Lunar New Year holiday. [Source: Joan Feng, AFP, March 7, 2011]

“Nowadays it's not easy to find an experienced worker like me,” the 25-year-old Lu, who worked at a package printing factory in the eastern province of Anhui for five years, said proudly. “The firm where I used to work has called me several times to ask me back. But their salary raise is not satisfying and I want a job in Shanghai just like my wife,” Lu said, after casually asking a recruiter about wages.

Lu's former employer offered him 3,800 yuan (US$578) a month, a 27 percent raise, but he aims to earn 4,000 yuan and says he will “keep looking around until I find an ideal job.”

Picky Chinese Workers

Workers in the Pearl River Delta are becoming increasingly restless and picky and companies are having a hard time winning them over and get them to work at their plants. Many migrants are working at jobs closer to home or finding work in the service sector. Those with some skills are getting decent job with good wages. If workers are satisfied with their pay or working conditions they are not afraid to demand more as the Honda and Toyota strikes in 2010 showed. In the industrial town of Zhongshan, many factories are operating with vacancies of 15 to 20 and factory owners are desperate for workers.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 12, 2010]

Zhang Jinfang, a 28-year-old who has held more than a dozen factory jobs since arriving in Zhongshan after high school told the New York Times, “Sometimes I’ll quit after a few weeks because the work is too hard or too boring, he said, eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Money is important, but it’s also important to have less pressure in your life.” [Ibid]

According to New York Times sociologists and other academics say these workers belong to a generation of that has rejected the regimented hardships their predecessors endured as the cheap labor army behind China’s economic miracle.

“Young Chinese factory workers, raised in a country with rapidly rising expectations, are less willing to toil for long hours for appallingly low wages like dutiful automatons.” Jacobs wrote. Guo Yuhua, a sociologist at Tsinghua University, said the new cohort of itinerant workers was better educated, Internet-savvy and covetous of the urban niceties they discovered after leaving the farm. They want a life just like city folk, and they have no interest in going back to being farmers, said Guo, who studies China’s 230 million-strong migrant population. [Ibid]

Lifestyle and Aspirations of Picky Chinese Workers

“There’s no doubt about it: they don’t want to work on the assembly line, Jing Jun, a sociologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the New York Times of the young migrant workers moving into southern China. “They have a different expectation. And once people’s attitudes about being in a factory change, other things will change.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, June 6, 2010]

“Zhang saves almost nothing of the $260-a-month salary he earns assembling cardboard boxes, another notable shift from the previous generation, which saved voraciously,” Jacobs wrote. “By Western standards, he works hard---six days a week, sometimes more when orders pile up---and he spends about a fifth of his pay on a rented apartment, having long since fled the bunk beds and curfews of the factory-owned dormitory. His dream: to one day run a factory of his own. But for now, I’d love to work in an air-conditioned office, he said.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 12, 2010]

“One factor in the expanding consciousness of migrant laborers is an astounding rise in education, with an additional three million students graduating high school between 2004 and 2008. The result is that a growing number young people are ambitious, optimistic and more aware of their rights, said Lin Yanling, a labor specialist at the China Institute of Industrial Relations. Then there is their fluency with technology---cellphones, e-mail and Internet chat---that connects them to peers in other factories. When they bump against unfair treatment, they are less afraid to challenge authority, she said.” [Ibid]

“With her iridescent fuchsia toenails and caramel-tinted hair, Liang Yali does not exactly fit the stereotype of the made in China worker bee. Raised by rice-farming peasants on the island province of Hainan, Liang, 22, is happily employed at a lock factory, where she packs up the finished product into boxes. She rents an apartment with two friends, eats out for most meals and spends Saturday night bar-hopping or singing at a local karaoke parlor. At night, before she goes to sleep, she sometimes plays a computer game in which participants steal vegetables from one another’s virtual farm.” [Ibid]

On her job she said, “My boss is nice and the work isn’t strenuous, so I have no complaints, she said. Her friend and co-worker Li Jingling, 27, nodded in agreement, adding that their company sponsored sports activities and allowed employees to dress in street clothes on Saturdays. When the topic turned to her parents, Li said she felt sorry for them. They go out to the fields when the sun rises and return home when the sun goes down, she said. No matter how difficult their marriage was, they would stick it out. For us, whether a bad marriage or a bad job, we’ll leave it if it’s lousy.”

Companies Try to Woo Picky Chinese Workers

Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Industries, whose 3,000 members employ more than three million workers, said he had been advising factory owners to offer better salaries, to treat employees more humanely and to listen to their complaints. The young generation thinks differently than their parents, they have beenwell protected by their families, and they don’t like to “chi ku,” Lau said. The expression chi ku, or eat bitterness, is a time-honored staple of Chinese culture. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 12, 2010]

Describing a job fair aiming to attract factory workers Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “An underwear company was offering subsidized meals and factory worker fashion shows. The maker of electric heaters promised seven-and-a-half-hour days. If you’re good, you can work in quality control and won’t have to stand all day, bragged a woman hawking jobs for a shoe manufacturer.” A 25-year-old unemployed worker at the fair was unimpressed. She said, “They always make these jobs sound better than they really are.” [Ibid]

“Xiang Qing, a 22-year-old recruiter for the Funilai undergarment factory, was looking wilted and abject under the shade of a plastic canopy. Her factory, which normally employs 2,700 people, was about 700 bodies short. She did her best to sound upbeat, but admitted that it was getting more difficult to find people who are willing to love the factory and make it their home, as her brochure suggested... Xiang complained that too many young people were unwilling to work hard. They’re all spoiled and coddled and have no patience, she said. Then, with the interview over, she returned to her reading material, a woman’s magazine called Beauty.” [Ibid]

At the Shanghai job fair, Teng Kewu, an office director for machinery maker Shanghai Shenlong Enterprise, told AFP, “I am under much bigger pressure this year as many southern companies are investing inland and attracting locals.” In addition to salary hikes, his company is spending money on setting up matchmaking events with nearby clothing factories, where workers are mostly female, in an effort to retain its young male staff. In Anhui authorities have been helping local firms recruit by sending buses into the streets to bring people to job fairs. “Hundreds of job seekers came around and the pay level has improved a lot compared with last year,” the veteran recruiter said, but added that after three days, he had yet to meet his target of signing up 80 people. [Source: Joan Feng, AFP, March 7, 2011]

Image Sources: 1) Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/ ; 2) BBC; 3,6 ) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) China Labor Watch; 5) Cgstock http://www.cgstock.com/china ; 7) Reuters, Telegraph

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012


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