Factory Stories: Labor Shortage and Layoffs

by Wang Xiaolin (Factory Stories #1, January 2012)


In early [2011], Ah-Ling came to the industrial area together with the [annual spring] tide of workers. The entrance to a village near a national highway was full of recruitment stalls. They came from nearby factories to recruit people. Ah-Ling carried her big suitcase to the stalls to see what all the fuss was about. The human resources personnel there were loudly introducing their factory’s salaries and benefits. Some were saying, “Our factory’s pay package goes up to 3,000 yuan, and we also have dormitories and a canteen.” Others promised, “If you’re interested we can send a car to drive you to the factory dorm right away.” Someone who was recruiting security guards started dragging away little Ah-Ling, saying that if she agreed to take the job she would get the easiest work imaginable – a job at a certain hospital where she would have both fun and lots of free time. The whole scene looked spectacular (as if a fat pig had just escaped from its sty), and it made people feel as if their social standing had suddenly risen.

Not long before that, almost all the news media were bellowing about the “shortage of labor” in the coastal industrial areas, exaggerating the whole thing without restraint. Everybody was saying this time salaries will go up for sure. Nonetheless, Ah-Ling soon discovered that, although the human resources staff at this “job fair” were shouting that “the monthly pay package is more then 3,000 yuan” and so on, when you looked at things more closely you realized that the basic wage was no higher than the legal minimum wage, and that the so-called “salary package” already included compensation for more then three hours of overtime per day.

After she spent some time looking for work, Ah-Ling slowly started to understand the so-called “labor shortage” issue. In the past, when there was not yet an “over-abundance” of bosses, there were plenty of workers and bosses could pick out whomever they wanted at will: young, unmarried, obedient, nimble-fingered girls. Slowly, these girls started turning into mothers. As the industry developed, there came to be too many bosses, and this made it more difficult to choose the workers they wanted. In that past, bosses did not hire male workers, but now they were “forced” to employ a certain number of men. Likewise, the acceptable age for workers gradually rose from 25 to 30, 35, 40 or even higher. Bosses unable to hire enough people started using more clever methods, such as trying to prevent workers from quitting. So when bosses complain about “the labor shortage,” they don’t mean a lack of people, but a lack of young, obedient, hardworking, agile, and female workers. This does not mean that mothers and men are becoming more highly valued. People who call this gender discrimination are right, but this kind of discrimination has nothing to do with so-called feudal mentality or outdated notions, since what are at stake are the bosses’ concrete interests. They want their horses to run, but they don’t want to feed them. Now when there are not enough healthy, strong, and tame horses, the bosses complain. And this has been resonating for years.

Ah-Ling decided to find an office job because office work tends to be easier than manual labor and allows more free time. She applied for this kind of job in many factories, but they all turned her down on the grounds that she “lacked experience”. Finally, Ah-Ling managed to get hired [for an office job] by some factory. It was not that they were so kindhearted that they took her in, but because she composed a CV claiming she had experience, and although she had never worked in an office before, she mastered her tasks in half a month. In fact most of the work is quite easy – though it can be a bit complicated, you just have to fake it for a while, and when you become familiar with the products and the work process, it turns out to be no big deal. The problem is that even in the conditions of a “labor shortage,” bosses are unwilling to spend additional money on training. They hate training unskilled workers and prefer hiring skilled people or even going to other factories to steal their skilled workers.

There was a lot of fuss about “the labor shortage” in Ah-Ling’s factory. What kind of shortage? Paint sprayers, unskilled workers, and office workers were being hired all year long. Spraying paint is poisonous, it smells bad and is hard work; unskilled labor takes a lot of physical strength. It took a lot of time to find people for these jobs and there were never enough people to do them. Office work was not so demanding, but the wages were lower (a new employee would get a monthly salary of 1,600 yuan and would have to do an hour and a half of unpaid overtime per day), so all the old employees left, and there was not enough new people to fill their posts. This made the human resources department head nervous as hell all the time.

Nevertheless, not long after entering the factory, Ah-Ling faced a “wave of layoffs”. By the end of the year, after the Christmas goods were exported, there was suddenly no more business for Ah-Ling’s factory, so they canceled overtime. To most workers who depend on overtime to make a living, this undoubtedly equals forcing them to quit. Many ordinary workers eventually decided to hand in their resignation. One would expect this to have made the boss happy, since it saved him a lot of money that would have otherwise been spent on compensation for laid-off workers. But on the contrary, he was not happy, since the reduction of ordinary workers meant an increase in the proportion of managerial staff. The boss ordered all departments to issue a list of the laid-off staff, lest the “ability of the managerial staff be called into question”. Ah-Ling’s department, which previously had over a hundred employees, lost over ten people, leaving 80-some, including four supervisors, two chief supervisors, and one manager. In order to prove his “managerial ability,” the manager submitted two lists of dismissed staff. Those dismissed allegedly received compensation worth three months of wages. It is worth pointing out that the people they wanted to lay off had all worked in the factory for more then a few years. There was even talk of an employee who had worked in the factory for 25 years who “decided” to quit and did not receive one cent of compensation.

This is how a “labor shortage” and layoffs miraculously appeared within one and the same factory.

Some say these layoffs were due to a bad economic situation, and that the boss suffered great losses. But everybody knows that during the period when they were making fortunes, bosses never increased wages of their own accord. Now that the economy is supposedly in a slump, this does not mean that the companies are losing money, but only that they are not making as much as before.

Having talked so much, I just wanted to explain one thing: it doesn’t matter whether the boss complains about a “labor shortage” or lays people off; in any case, it’s all about profit. The boss is weakest when there are fewer workers so he cannot choose and manipulate the employees at will. When business is good, the boss will talk about “good will and solidarity”, “treating the factory as a family”, and hard work; when business is bad, the boss has to “get through the winter”, so he is surely right to lay off workers, leaving them cold and hungry.

This is the boss’s logic.


This entry was posted in Texts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.