Factory Stories: Decoding “Short-Term Work”

by Wang Xiaolin (Factory Stories #3, May 2012)

Xiaowang comes from Hunan province and works as a supervisor in a toy factory. He often tells the workers: “Changing the factory is just like jumping from a wolf’s den into a tiger’s lair!” However, he is the king of job hoppers himself. As an 18 year old he finished upper middle school and left [home] to find a job. In the twelve years since then, he has already worked in more than twenty factories. Of course, not everyone has been that lucky. Many have worked for ten years and more—continuously changing jobs—but have remained ordinary workers until today. Xiaowang, however, made his way up from being an ordinary worker to becoming a supervisor, and nowadays his biggest concern is that the employee turnover is too high. He asked the human resources department to comply with the following criteria when hiring staff: no young men born in the 1990s or after because they cannot bear hardships; no rather old women because their limbs are not flexible enough. But while the factory is pickywhen choosing workers, the workers are picking factories, too. Basically, all new workers in Xiaowang’s department leave the job after just one week.

At the beginning of this year, when the media pushed reports about the “labor shortage”, it kept exaggerating the problem of “short-term work”. The term “short-term work” first appeared on several websites and in a research report from the Department of Sociology at Qinghua University [in Beijing]. They believe that “‘short-term work’ points to the phenomenon of short work cycles and frequent job changes of migrant workers—especially the new generation—in the past few years.” As a result, every big media outlet was eager to comment on “short-term work”. Some claimed that “(workers) shortsightedly impede their own development”, and some—worrying about the country and its people—said that it “undermines the migrant workers’ right to secure employment, harms their individual development, is detrimental to the progress and development of industrial production and puts social stability at risk.” In that way, “short-term work” appears as a new plaything, but what impact does it have on the division between workers and companies?

Indeed, in these years following economic development and industrial expansion, it has been increasingly easy for workers to find employment. They have found it unbearable to stay in companies with low wages and bad working conditions, and they don’t want to work in the same factory for a long time. Why is it that way?

Everyone who has a bit of experience as a migrant worker knows that workers change jobs just for a few reasons: some do this because the wage is too low, and they hop to a new job hoping to change their situation; for some the job itself is tedious, and they want to change the environment; a small part might also see a better job opportunity and, therefore, changes jobs.

Young workers rather act “impulsively” than relatively old workers—also because they have to carry less life burdens and dare to take on challenges—so they change jobs even more frequently. However, they are in no way like the media describes them: hoodlums who seem like “factory drifters”. Changing the factory reflects nothing but forms of discontent and expectation—the expectation that they will be promoted, get a higher wage, and improve their working environment. All young workers who just started migrating have some illusions. They hope that through hard work they can get a better position and a wage increase. In reality, changing the factory does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on a worker’s situation—eventually, the majority of the workers has less and less opportunities for advancement. Working at the assembly line, on the other hand, is dull as ditchwater and against human nature. The factory [management] looks to increase productivity and, therefore, wants workers to perfectly adapt to machine production. That process does not require workers’ “individuality”, “human nature”, or “creativity”. At best, they become a part of the machine while using their “human” flexibility and personal initiative to increase productivity. For the young workers this kind of work is especially hard to bear.

As the labor force is one of the “factors of production”, the company tries to control it as much as possible. But the employees are not modeling clay that you can just knead the way you want. After several people with important positions in Xiaowang’s department had quit because of low wages, their jobs had to be done by one person. When, after some time, nobody suitable could be recruited, there was no other way but to look for “successors” among the ordinary workers. But if an ordinary worker has to learn working on another position, and at the same time has to still do her or his job well, then that one person is torn apart.

When employees frequently change jobs the company’s “labor costs” certainly increase. Although nowadays factories divide the work into small steps, the work [itself] is less qualified. In order to reach the speed and standard of experienced workers, newly recruited [workers] still need some time for training and adaptation. However, that said, are companies keen to provide “stable employment”? Definitely not! When employees who joined [a company] are not willing to leave, then many companies are simply getting a headache. During off-peak production periods or when business is bad, cutting staff is the first thing companies consider. During peak production periods, on the contrary, it is difficult for employees to quit the job, and managements always refuse or delay resignations. In short, for bosses and managers it is important to keep labor mobility and [employment] stability under control and in accordance with their own interests. For them, ideally workers come when they are needed and go when they are not needed.

After all, the so-called “short-term work” is a false proposition. The workers’ desire for higher wages and better working conditions, and the bosses’ wish to save on labor costs, clearly show the irreconcilable contradiction.


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