Wages Up in China as Young Workers Grow Scarce

Wages Up in China as Young Workers Grow Scarce


Published : August 29, 2007 / The New York Times

At the Dahon bicycle factory here, Zhang Jingming’s fingers move quickly and methodically — grabbing bicycle seats, wrapping them in cardboard and smoothly attaching them to frames.

Working a 45-hour week, Mr. Zhang makes the equivalent of $263 a month; as recently as February, he was making just $197. Some of his higher pay comes from working more efficiently. “When I first started, I wasn’t this fast,” he said.

But a good portion reflects a raise Mr. Zhang got: to 1.45 cents for each bicycle seat from 1.32 cents. It is a small difference that signifies major change.

Chinese wages are on the rise. No reliable figures for average wages exist; the government’s economic data are notably unreliable. But factory owners and experts who monitor the nation’s labor market say that businesses are having a hard time finding able-bodied workers and are having to pay the workers they can find more money.

And higher wages in China are likely to lead to higher prices in the United States — at the mall, at the grocery, even at the gas pump.

Chinese companies are already passing along some of their higher costs to overseas customers. Prices for goods from China, after years of gradual decline, have risen 1.2 percent since February, according to the Labor Department. July’s increase was the biggest yet: 0.4 percent compared with June. Chinese companies and contractors are also passing on the cost of the rising value of their currency, the yuan, up 8.8 percent against the dollar in the last two years.

For decades, many labor economists said that China’s vast population would supply a nearly bottomless pool of workers. So many people would be seeking jobs at any given time, this reasoning went, that wages in this country would be stuck just above subsistence levels. As recently as four years ago, some experts estimated that most of the perhaps 150 million underemployed workers in the countryside would be heading to cities.

Instead, sporadic labor shortages started to appear in 2003 at factories in the Pearl River delta of southeastern China. Now those shortages have spread to factories up and down the Chinese coast, specialists say.

This summer, Mary Gallagher, a Chinese labor specialist at the University of Michigan, visited five sportswear factories near Shanghai and Guangzhou. She found them all struggling to hire and retain workers. One had shut one of its two main production lines because it had nobody to sew shirts and other garments.

“Basically half the factory was shut down and one dormitory was empty,” Ms. Gallagher said.

In interviews, factory executives across the country complained of being forced to give double-digit raises in order to find and keep young workers at all skill levels. Three or four years ago, said Zhong Yi, vice general manager of a leather-jacket manufacturer in Hangzhou in east-central China, 800 to 1,100 yuan a month ($105 to $145) “was a good salary.”

“Now,” he said, “1,500 is the bottom” ($198).

Chinese officials are quick to say that there is no overall shortage of labor — rather, there is a shortage of young workers willing to accept the low wages that prevailed in the 1990s. Factories in cities like Guangzhou advertise heavily for young workers, even while employment offices consider it a success if someone over 40 can find any job in less than a year.

“Now they’re taking workers into their early 30s,” said Jonathan Unger, director of the Contemporary China Center at Australian National University in Canberra, “but anything older than that and they think they can’t take the conditions, the 11-hour days,” as well as work on weekends, and a tedious life in factory-owned dormitories.

Plant owners’ refusal to hire blue-collar workers over 35 or 40 is colliding with the demographic reality of China’s one-child policy. The number of workers in the 20-to-24-year-old range is already shrinking as more of them go to universities instead of entering the work force after high school, and the International Labor Organization projects that workers in this age range will edge slowly downward through at least 2020.

Visiting villages from tropical Gaoyao in the southeastern corner of the country to dusty Houxinqiu in the northeast, it is striking how few young adults remain after so many have left for the cities. A recent government survey of 2,749 villages in 17 provinces and autonomous regions found that in 74 percent of villages, there were no workers fit to travel to distant cities, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

A separate report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned of coming labor shortages even in rural areas as soon as 2009.

This lack of laborers of desirable age is hardly making China a worker’s paradise. Factory wages remain extremely low by Western standards: roughly $1 an hour for better-paid workers near the coast, compared with as little as 50 cents early this decade.

The pay looks especially low in dollar terms, partly because China has intervened in the currency markets to hold down the value of the yuan and keep exports competitive. The cost of living is low in dollar terms for the same reason; entrees at an air-conditioned restaurant three blocks from the bicycle factory here start at 50 cents for a large plate of fried rice.

Moreover, labor regulation is weak in China, as shown most vividly this year by the discovery that brick kilns in the north of the country had kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of children and mentally disadvantaged adults, working them under brutal conditions with little or no pay.

And wages are stagnating in the middle of the labor market — workers who consider themselves too educated for entry-level jobs in a garment factory, but lacking the skills or experience to command a premium salary elsewhere. “It’s easy to find a job with not a very high salary,” said Chen Zheng, a 24-year-old auto worker and high school graduate in Ningbo. “It’s not easy if you want a higher wage.”

The hardest variable to judge in China’s changing labor market is the pace of productivity growth. Since there are few reliable statistics, the best way to assess productivity is to look at individual factories like the Dahon operation here, which produces bicycles that collapse for easy storage.

David T. Hon, chief executive of the privately held Dahon Group, said that while he had been raising wages 10 to 15 percent a year, the average labor cost for each bicycle had actually edged downward. This is possible, he said, because sales are growing 30 percent a year and increasingly large-scale production has brought savings. The cost of engineering a new bicycle design, or handling the accounting and other back-office operations, is spread over more and more bicycles as production rises.

The price changes in China are unlikely to immediately affect broad measures of inflation in the United States though longer-term effects are likely, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said in a speech on March 2, just as prices for imports from China were reaching a low point. Mr. Bernanke suggested that the price changes would have minimum effect because the total of Chinese imports was small in relation to the broad American economy.

A bigger question, one harder to answer, is how much cheap Chinese imports have forced American manufacturers to keep their own prices low. And will that price restraint persist if Chinese products become more expensive?

For instance, American, European and Japanese automakers have been putting a lot of pressure on parts suppliers to cut prices by forcing them to compete for contracts with low-cost Chinese producers.

Rising overall incomes in China also affect American inflation indirectly. Higher incomes in this country contribute to soaring demand by Chinese for cars, air-conditioners and other energy-consuming products.

China is now the world’s second-largest oil importer after the United States. More demand will help push up global oil prices and inflation.


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