by Lin Yi (Factory Stories, Factory Management, November 2014)
I returned to work three days after Lunar New Year, and at the meeting our department chief solemnly announced that production capacity would double this year, and since it looks like business will be better everybody will have to do more overtime. Who would have thought that after May things would slow down and they would recruit less workers. They went from hiring every day to only hiring people twice a week, and they hired mostly female workers. Sometimes, when we weren’t busy we would rarely get seven days in a row, and we would occasionally get two days or even three days of rest. By July, they also started to control overtime.
Firstly, the foremen and higher-level staff had to announce weekend overtime beforehand, and on the day of overtime workers had to sign in and out at the stairway. Secondly, during overtime, HR staff would come to check what’s going on in the office and make people doing overtime sign in again. On a Wednesday, two weeks after they started checking for attendance, they issued a list of irregularities, for example, if someone registered for overtime but didn’t actually attend or if they attended but did not sign in or only signed in only once, and so on. After seeing these irregularities the boss sent emails questioning each person involved, warning them that if this happened again they would not get any more overtime.
To cut to the chase, the boss became increasingly strict about overtime. That said, on the weekends he himself never did overtime and he had occasionally kind of tolerated the ways people ‘faked overtime.’ But, as far as the factory is concerned, from time to time they start up “campaigns” in order to stop employees from “faking overtime” (for instance, by checking the actual overtime on weekends) and to reduce overtime costs for the boss.
Whenever they checked there was trouble. As a matter of fact, when Ah-Ling, one of the clerks from our office, turned up for overtime last Sunday she forgot to close the web-page she was browsing at the end of her shift. One of the HR-employees saw that a Taobao [online shopping] window was still open on her computer. Actually, this was a big deal! When the director received an email about it he felt that he had lost face and could not let the thing slide. So he demanded that Ah-Ling’s manager fire her. Ah-Ling’s manager earnestly listened to the accusations and then said: “This time it was Ah-Ling’s mistake, but I’m also responsible for not doing a good job supervising her. Since it’s her first time, let’s just give her a written warning.” The boss finally agreed to give her a written warning, but both that month’s performance bonus (of 400 yuan) as well as her end of year bonus (usually one month’s basic wage) were cut, and afterwards controls on overtime were tightened. There was nothing Ah-Ling could do. She considered quitting her job, but then she thought about how her manager had made the effort to plead on her behalf. Moreover, her boyfriend was working in the same department so she decided to stay. Because she was doing less overtime, she could only earn about 2,000 yuan per month.
Our department closed down three production lines after September. They also planned to cancel night shifts from the beginning of December. When the production lines were closed, people were relocated to other lines. That way, for a while there was no need to hire new people. There are less orders now, and those on the production lines often have to finish early (which means getting off work at 5 o’clock, with no overtime). They control overtime very strictly. Even if there is something special that needs to be handled, they let no more than five people stay longer. Wages have fallen in correspondence with these reductions in overtime. Although it’s been said that there is no lack of people, the foremen have not dared to hassle people fearing they would quit and that if that were to happen the atmosphere created would make others also leave. Who would come and do the work then?! But this has not stopped people leaving. Last month almost half of the people who left the job, left in a rather unusual way: they quit.
Recently there haven’t been many orders, so production is going on pretty smoothly and office staff are not very busy. The office workers earn the same as workers on the production lines, a basic wage of 1,320 yuan. If they pass a job exam and obtain a certificate they get paid an extra 100 yuan job allowance. While the line workers are basically guaranteed overtime hours, the office staff are less busy and can often finish their tasks without working overtime. The problem is that without overtime the wage is just above 1,000 yuan, and nobody is willing to work for that. So office workers will often do two hours of overtime during the week or work one or two days on weekends. With stricter control, everyone is more careful and nobody will leave the office during overtime even if they may not have anything to do but play with their phones and chat.
Lately the boss hasn’t been very strict on overtime. Although the managers sometimes send memos reaffirming that overtime must be restricted, in reality they very rarely check on people.
There are two office workers who signed up for overtime two weekends in a row, but they played cards during work, had lunch outside the office and even went for a stroll. So they were absent from the factory for several hours. Some people warned them: “You’ll get caught sooner or latter if you keep this up.” They didn’t care too much though. So on Monday, the ‘boss’s pet’ (a woman employee who is especially close to the boss) sent a memo demanding a clear written explanation for any overtime; and that managers have to be clear about the workload of their employees, the overtime needed and that they must supervise overtime. Besides that, she send a separate memo to the two employees who were ‘faking’ overtime demanding that they send her an email about overtime every day before 4 pm and explain why they need to stay longer.
So, that afternoon those two women sent an email to the ‘boss’s pet’ stating that the reasons for doing overtime were: “dealing with exceptional tasks and running orders.” The ‘boss’s pet’ replied they have to give concrete reasons for doing overtime.
The two women workers absolutely did not know what to do and replied: “We don’t know what to write. There are so many exceptional tasks and orders that we have to deal with every day.” In the end she didn’t reply anymore – one shouldn’t be too strict with denying people overtime. Later they told me in secret: “It was all Ah-Zhen (another female colleague), that bitch. She ran to the ‘boss’s pet’ and accused us of faking overtime!” During lunchtime, an office assistant who felt mistreated complained that she hadn’t worked overtime for ages. The day she did work half a day in overtime she got that email, as if she was faking overtime too. She only understood what it was all about when I told her that the letter was directed at those two women from the office. We basically agreed that it was very mean of Ah-Zhen to rat on people and that we should keep away from her. We all work and the wages are so low. It’s not easy for any of us!
Allegedly, Ah-Zhen is just an office clerk but graduated from college. Compared with other people in the office who only finished senior high or vocational school she is more educated and bit overambitious. When she came she was just a trainee, a slow learner with a bad attitude. Office workers often have to help out on the production lines and work with other employees on certain issues. Because she was always inpatient and made many mistakes nobody liked her. She is a little older than most of the other office workers but she always wears a butterfly shaped headband and speaks with a sharp voice. Sometimes she acts cute and charming, sometimes she is cold and arrogant. To be sure, her smiles are generally for superiors and she puts on a cold face when confronting employees on her level or below. Female office workers are essentially divided into two groups, the ‘boss’s pets’ who always follow the boss like a shadow, and the rest of us staff members and office workers who often eat and do other things together. Ah-Zhen has tried to suck up to the boss, but he already has his ‘pets’ and she couldn’t get into the club so she has to stick with the rest of us. But nobody really likes to hang out with her.
The two office workers who were involved in the overtime incident feel depressed and uncomfortable, and sometimes they think about just forgetting about doing any overtime. Yet, even if they stop applying for overtime they still have to keep on working and earn money somehow, unless they really don’t want to work [here anymore]. As a matter of fact, tonight they already applied for overtime but the ‘boss’s pet’ gave a “casual” warning: when overtime is confirmed they have to send her an email. Normal procedure is to announce overtime beforehand and after finishing it confirm how much overtime was actually done with a clerk. Because of the privileged position of the ‘boss’s pet’ it is not easy to question [her warning], so the girls did as they were told.