A Long March For Workers

And you thought we had it bad. At least you get paid for those 60-hour weeks

Think you've got it bad? Consider Dong Ziaobo, a senior manager at a small, private provider of telecom software services in Beijing whose main client is China Mobile Ltd. (CHL ), the national carrier. Dong, 30 and unmarried, earns almost $2,000 a month -- nearly twice what the average city worker makes in a year -- but he slogs through 60-hour, six-day weeks. Although about 20 hours of that are overtime, he receives no extra pay. "I have no choice but to work overtime," says Dong. "Anyway, it's my duty to work hard at my job."

More than 300 miles away, in the capital of coal-producing Shanxi province, 31-year-old Liu Bo puts in a very different workweek. As one of 120 teachers at the Taiyuan Middle School, he spends exactly 40 hours over five days a week teaching history class. He never does a minute of overtime. For this, the married Liu earns just under $200 a month. But he's happy with his employment. "I just want to keep teaching my students," says Liu, who adds that as a government-employed teacher he is assured of social welfare benefits such as medical care. "I like my job because I face little stress and can fully enjoy my free time," he says.

In rapidly transforming China, the realities of Dong and Liu exist side by side. According to a study by the International Labor Organization, the Chinese workweek averages 44.6 hours. (In the U.S., it's 39 hours.) And 52% of Chinese workers put in more than 40 hours a week, well above the comparable 28% in the U.S.

Yet the ILO data also point out critical distinctions within the Chinese workforce. In particular, it matters whether you are employed by the state, where work hours are shorter, or in the fast-growing private sector, where the average workweek exceeds 46 hours. "Chinese, especially young people, are facing ever more pressure in their jobs," says Ma Mingjie, director of the Beijing-based China Youth Daily's Social Research Center. According to a survey by the center in April, 65.6% are working longer than eight-hour days, with 20% putting in more than 10 hours.

What's more, the ILO study found that 51% of Chinese workers -- unlike those in Japan and South Korea -- do not get paid for overtime, says Zeng Xiangquan, dean of the School of Labor & Human Resources at People's University and one of the authors of the study. While blue-collar workers log long hours to earn more money, white-collars do so for less tangible goals such as promotion or personal satisfaction, says Zeng.

Take Wu Xianyong, vice-president for marketing and international business at Beijing athletic gear maker Li-Ning, which is competing with the likes of Adidas-Salomon and Nike (NKE ) in China but intends eventually to vie for international markets, too. "I want to work to build Li-Ning into a global brand," says Wu, who regularly puts in 60-hour workweeks with no overtime pay.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the long hours, China's labor regulations are "actually good -- and pretty much in keeping with international norms," says Constance Thomas, director of the ILO Office for China and Mongolia in Beijing. The laws mandate 44-hour, five-day workweeks; two weeks of annual leave; regular holidays; and a minimum of one-and-a-half time pay for overtime. Moreover, those mandated work hours are down from close to 50 hours in a six-day week before 1995. But that doesn't mean the laws are widely followed, particularly in the fast-growing, unregulated sector of the economy or where migrant workers are involved. "It's a big country with a lot of regions that still need to develop," Thomas says. "We see differences in how the labor law is applied."

The jury is still out on what comes next. Although Chinese yuppies are starting to value free time and with labor law moving toward better protection of workers, the rapid growth of private enterprise is likely to mean longer working hours. "There is a push-pull effect," says the ILO's Thomas. And that means that at least for some time to come, all those 60-hour workweeks will help keep the Chinese economic engine roaring.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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