The Inefficiencies in the Chinese Working Class
Working Class Chinese
Many readers of the China expat blogosphere already know about Ben Ross’ decision to jump into the shoes of a working class Chinese person for a month, donning an apron and beginning the training of a barber to see what it is like to be one among the enormous ranks of the Chinese working class.
It’s an interesting idea, but one that few other China expats would likely be able to follow up on. The idea of making so little money for so much time would just drive me crazy, and I’d guess that you would agree. Unless your name is Ben Ross, and in that case what you are doing is pretty cool.
Anyway, he wrote a good introduction to the inefficiencies of many employees in China, shedding some insight into the “why” of a room full of hairdressers or waitresses standing around doing nothing. If you have ever walked into a Chinese restaurant or hair salon or clothing store or mall bathroom or any of a huge range of Chinese businesses during non-peak hours, you know what I am talking about.
But it’s not just confined to service and retail jobs. Many ‘white collar jobs’ are also rife with inefficiencies.
While Ben’s implication that there are large cultural & social differences that drive these differences between American work efficiency and the lack thereof in many Chinese jobs is true, his implication that because things are this way that’s the way they should be for China or that people in China are fine with the way things are might not be true.
These inefficiencies can and will be taken advantage of by a smart Chinese businessperson, and there is a good amount of hidden demand for part time or reduced hour work in China. And that’s not all: the extra efficiencies could be good for China and its social stability, at least in the medium run.
The China Life / Work Dynamic
From the time they are little, Chinese students spend more time in school than their American counterparts. Longer school hours in primary school turns into more homework by junior high and then finally into near daily night study sessions by high school. For the lucky few that make it through the make or break you college entrance examinations, there is a short four years of relatively stress-free living before the long hours of the rest of your life.
But things aren’t as bad as they sound. As Ben notes in his article, many of the long hours are filled with things that would not be considered work in America: reading a newspaper, chatting it up with co-workers, emailing & messaging friends. Some even play computer games much of the day (seriously, I have first hand sources).
For many in China, life is just as much a part of work as work is necessary for life. And most people accept this. It’s the way it’s always been, so why change now?
In some ways, it must be nice to go to work and know that you will have a lot of downtime, and to not worry about being stressed out much of the time. But in others, it isn’t. If you don’t think so, ask yourself these questions:
- Would you rather be forced to be best friends with those you work with, or have the time to choose who you want to spend your time with?
- Would you like to be paid more for the hours you do work, and be able to work less overall to make the same pay through another part time job?
- Would you rather work long overtime hours or be at home with family and friends?
- Would you rather study at home or during the downtime at work?
Of course, if you aren’t mainland Chinese then you can’t really put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese person and accurately answer these questions like they would. However, I know quite a few Chinese people who would much rather work fewer hours for a little less pay given the opportunity.
Too Many People, Too Few Jobs
The fear is that there is a set number of jobs — ie even with improvements in efficiency the total number of available jobs would stay about the same. Is this really true? The rationale for over employment in China makes sense on the surface: without a job with long hours, a large number of people would have less money and would spend more time milling around and causing trouble of some sort or another. Is this a good rationale? Both of these statements are different sides of the same coin, so take a look with me at what might happen if small business owners all across China decided to cut quite a bit back on the total number of worker hours while increasing efficiency at the workplace.
Increased Efficiency = Fewer Jobs in China?
As you look at this question, it may be helpful to make some assumptions (which may or may not be true in practice):
- Part of the increase in efficiency would equal higher profits for the business owner
- Part of the increase in efficiency would translate into higher per hour wages
- The increase in efficiency would result in lower total hours worked and a lower overall wage
What exactly would happen with an increase in efficiency? For certain, the profit of the business owner would go up. This would allow him, directly or indirectly, to finance his or other businesses, in a multitude of ways (through lending, partial or full ownership, or consumption). Presumably, these other businesses would have expanded employment opportunities thanks to the increase in financing or consumption.
At the same time, the typical Chinese worker in such a job would see his or her time spent on this job shrink considerably. They could use this additional time to do any number of things, including spending time with family (maybe even expanding the human capital of one’s children) or friends, studying, doing other things one loves, or working another job part time. Where did the other job come from? Hopefully from the circulation of money squeezed out by greater efficiency by the small business owner one works for.
Also, the very act of employing people by the hour and making them work more efficiently could very well make them more confident and cognizant of the value of their time. Right now, many Chinese service and retail workers know they can only make from 500-800 RMB per month. The job market doesn’t allow them to squeeze more out of lower level jobs, and the only real time they have for studying / self-improvement is down time on the job, not exactly the most conducive environment for getting things done. It’s also an environment that is self-reinforcing: Do you work long hours for very little because you are inefficient or are you inefficient because you work long hours for very little?
If Chinese workers were offered the chance between two part time jobs that paid 1000 RMB per month total or one part time job that paid 800 RMB per month for the same amount of work & commuting, they would take the first opportunity in a heart beat. The problem is, such a part time, pay you according to what you are worth does not exist for many service workers in China.
Changing the Work System in China
Last but not least, people in China are not so set in their ways that they don’t want a change to the current job market: i.e. the lack of part time jobs. This quote is from the comments at Ben’s Blog:
Benjamin Ross said,
May 27, 2007 at 12:03 am
On a similar line of questioning from the other readers, if youâ€™re a small business owner in China, would there be an advantage to implementing a western style system of part time workers and job scheduling based on observed traffic flows for your business?
In my opinion, there would absolutely be an advantage. Mr. Zheng told me that labor is his biggest expense, and obviously a lot of this labor is being wasted. The problem, however, I think is embedded within the system. In the West, many people (especially students) work part time jobs. In China, this is not as common. While it does happen occasionally, you are either fully indebted to your work (like our barbershop) or fully indebted to something else (such as school)â€¦the two generally donâ€™t mix. While it would make business sense for Mr. Zheng to employ a western style system of shift management, my guess is he would not be able to find the workers to do it.
Ben, you are right that the current job market is embedded within China’s system, culture, history, society, and anything else you want to throw in here. However, Mr. Zheng would probably be able to find the workers to do it if the terms were reasonable (if he cut the offered hours in half along with the salary, there would be zero takers, of course).
While not representative of the retail and service industry, there are plenty of college students or young mothers who would be willing to do part time work. The problem isn’t that they are not willing, the problem is that the opportunities are not there. When my girlfriend was attending a college in Guangzhou, almost every student wanted to have a part time job. The problem was that when an opportunity arose, it was fought over fiercely.
I have also talked to plenty of people who would be willing to take a small cut in pay to work less hours, even on a straight line basis. The long hours are grinding many white collar workers into the ground in China.
The main problem, of course, is that service or retail workers are stuck with a job that pays barely enough to survive. A reduction in overall pay without another part time job opportunity to make up the difference might hurt quite a bit. But then again, a reduction in overall pay on a wide scale along with its commensurate increase in efficiency might just be what is necessary to create these additional opportunities.
If efficiency doesn’t matter, then why get rid of the state owned enterprises in the first place? There are obvious benefits to efficiency, ones that, in the long run at least, are more likely to help than hurt Chinese workers.