Dongguan, Guangdong, in the heart of the Pearl River Delta is ground zero for China's export-processing zone. It's also home to more than 3.6 million migrant workers toiling in the thousands of factories producing toys, plastics, and computer components.
Huang Huiping, 43, has worked at the Dongguan Labor Bureau for 13 years, rising to deputy chief and overseeing her bureau as it more than doubled in size, to some 800 employees. "We are continually adding staff as there are so many migrant workers to oversee," she told Beijing Bureau Chief Dexter Roberts in a recent interview in her office. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Can you tell me about the labor shortages that have emerged?
A: We expect the situation to be more serious this year. Shortages first emerged in 2003 and are especially serious in labor-intensive industries like clothing, shoes, toys, and in electronic components. The shortages are happening because workers have more choices than they did before. There are new places they can find work, and new kinds of opportunities for them.
The rise of the Yangtze River Delta has opened a new destination for them to find factory work. And the government's policy of sannong [Beijing's preferential tax policies that focus on improving rural incomes] has made farmers' incomes go up and made staying on the farm more attractive. It's not like before, when a migrant worker's only choice was the Pearl River Delta. At the same time, Dongguan enterprises also continually need more labor.
Q: What kind of workers are Dongguan factories looking for?
A: That is also contributing to the shortages: Most factories are looking for young woman workers. For example, of those Dongguan enterprises that were facing shortages last year, 75% were looking for woman, and 60% were trying to find women 18 to 25. The fact that they are being so selective also makes it very difficult for them to find workers.
Also, many of those enterprises now facing shortages are those that were first set up in the 1990s and are doing simple manufacturing or export processing. Traditionally, these kind of factories pay salaries that are very low, and this is making it difficult for them now to attract workers.
Q: How does your bureau ensure that Dongguan factories follow the labor law and treat migrant workers properly?
A: We do inspections of all the factories in Dongguan. We send out more than 200 inspectors into the factories every year to check on labor conditions, including that working-hours regulations are being followed, and that wages are paid on time. We are trying to ensure that migrant workers have the same rights as local workers [those from Dongguan city].
Enterprises in Dongguan must follow the labor law. For example, workers should only work five days a week and eight hours a day. Employers must give them overtime pay if they need their workers to exceed that.
Migrant workers are coming from other provinces and cities across China, so the enterprises must also provide housing and canteens where they can eat, as well as some entertainment activities for their workers.
Q: Where do you find that local enterprises are not meeting the law?
A: Overtime pay is the biggest problem companies face when it comes to the labor law. Many factories also must do seasonal hiring, which creates problems. For example, in the months before Christmas many factories have a high season of producing toys. According to the labor law, if workers exceed 36 hours a week, then you must pay them one and half times their salary, and double pay for Saturdays and Sundays, as well as triple pay for holidays.
But many factories don't obey China's labor law. There is a conflict between the labor law and the fact that many factories have peak hiring periods and off-peak times. There are also problems with companies withholding worker salaries.
So we have set up a minimum wage in Dongguan. That was raised from $57 a month to $69 a month last year. Our bureau then does inspections to make sure companies are paying full salaries according to the regulations, and doing so in a prompt fashion. We also check to see whether companies are meeting regulations on safety standards and factory cleanliness standards.
Q: Does your bureau ever find it hard to balance the needs of protecting workers and ensuring that your factory investors are satisfied too?
A: The labor bureau's job is not to attract investment but to enforce the law and regulations of China. Really, we have two roles: The first includes protecting the legal rights of both workers and of investors. Our labor bureau doesn't stand on either the workers' side or the investors' side. If workers break the laws of China, we won't support them.
Our second role is to supervise the implementation of the labor law. Our job is also to cooperate with other provinces, particularly those where migrant workers are from, to ensure we have a steady supply of labor for our factories.