Chinese low-wage workers disloyal for a reason

On: March 2, 2008
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About Pieter-Paul Walraven
Besides enjoying my MA New Media and doing research on Web 2.0 developments in China at the UvA I am working 2 days a week as a project assistant at KREM ( KREM is a web 2.0 oriented company which specializes in so called corporate social networks. Movies: Koyaanisqatsi, O Brother where art thou?, Amores Perros. When not studying: Golf!, running, traveling, China, Web 2.0. Books: Life of Pi, War and Peace, The World is Flat. Furthermore I am currently doing research on Web 2.0 in China and Chinese Web companies expanding overseas. For this MA thesis research I will travel to China on the 14th of April to interview the most prominent Chinese Web companies that have the ambition to expand internationally.


Fast Boat to ChinaI am currently reading a lot for my research and an interesting book I finished a few days ago is Fast Boat to China from Andrew Ross. In Fast Boat to China Andrew approaches the global outsourcing trend in a different way than most other writers on this subject (for example Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat). He has taken a surprisingly fresh look by gathering information not only in the countries that are relocating their factories to elsewhere, but mainly from foreign-invested companies based in China. A year long Andrew has interviewed enterprises in Shanghai and the Yangtze Delta.

Surprising insights

Burtinsky - Factory workersThis different approach on the subject of outsourcing has led to some surprising outcomes especially when compared to the statements made in the pro-globalization and outsourcing book The World is Flat. Through his inside interviews Andrew Ross was able to create a very detailed image of how Chinese workers themselves feel about the current situation. As it turns out most of the employees Andrew has interviewed are not happy with their new employers since they are extremely unreliable. This is because multinational firms have made it very clear that they are always in pursuit of the cheapest and most dispensable employees; the employee turnover can sometimes be as high as 40%.

Low-wage workers react

As a response to this cost-cutting behaviour it seems that the employees are starting to return the disrespect by becoming extremely disloyal and unreliable. Workers in China’s transitional economy are reacting on the behaviour of multinationals. As a result of the coming and going of corporations, weak employee employer ties arise which subsequently has resulted in job-hopping becoming a very common phenomenon. An example that illustrates this nicely is the fact that after the annual week-long Spring Festival holiday; more than 2 million migrants did not return to the Pearl River Delta’s export-processing factories in South China. Even though turnover is always high at this time of the year these numbers are abnormal.

Loyalty to China

In contrast to these developments Andrew describes how an opposite trend in loyalty can be observed when considering employees their loyalty to China. It seems that, partly because of the disrespectful behaviour of foreign enterprises, loyalty to China itself is growing, and the grander goal of growing the nation out of its technical dependence on foreign expertise becomes popular. This sentiment of independence is something I would like to do more research on while travelling through China and interviewing Web companies with international ambitions.

I recommend everybody to read this book to get some interesting new insights in the current, but also in the future situation of China and the world.

For more information on this subject check my thesis blog. For more information on shameless self-promotion like the previous linking, read this post I wrote on the KREMweblog.

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