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Making Sense of ‘Labour Shortage’ and ‘Short Term Work’

Click here to download this introduction in PDF format

Each year, one can be sure that the topic of ‘labour shortages’ will pop up in the Chinese media immediately after the Chinese New Year. As rural migrant workers return home to celebrate the occasion, employers will have a difficult time to quickly find enough new workers when the holiday ends. This can take several weeks and much anxiety, but in the end normally enough workers will be found. In this sense, it is not a structural but temporal shortage of labour; the media reports on labour shortages are more a reflection of the anxiety of capital and local government anxious about economic growth. So what is the issue?

While there may be actual shortage of labour in certain regions due to demographic changes, it is worth emphasising that young workers are developing higher expectations for their jobs, and are increasingly less willing to accept whatever is on offer. This has led labour scholars to note the emergence of a new or second generation of migrant workers – those born in the 1980s and after, which now constitutes 58.4% of all migrant workers in China. It is a sociological rather than a biological category that describes the young and more educated workers – those with urban outlooks and higher aspiration – in contrast to the previous generation of migrant workers. As a result, the new generation tends to care more about pay and benefits, working conditions and employment security.

In response, both the employers and local governments have tried to adjust to this reality. In addition to raising wages generally, some employers host banquets for their workers at the end of the year, distribute bonuses and pay for their travel expenses in the hope of attracting them back the following year. The local governments and unions for their part have organised trainings for workers to upgrade their skills and helped directly recruit workers for local industrial enterprises.

Click below to download the first translation, which discusses labour shortage and new-generation migrant workers:

Jiangxi: Phenomenon of “Short-Term Work” Gives Rise to “New Labor Shortage”


On the surface, this seems a positive development, as workers have enjoyed raising wages and better treatment. But the other side of labour shortage is the trend of ‘short-term work’. This trend is not new but seems to be accelerating, and undermining workers’ gains. A recent joint report by Tsinghua University and a Chinese labour recruitment website finds that a large proportion of workers change their jobs frequently because of low wages and poor prospects of job advancement. As it happens, the next job is often just as disappointing, and workers will then leave for another job in a bid to find something better.

The report indicates that, for the workers surveyed, 65.9% have changed their jobs at least once in their work life, 25% have changed their job in the past 7 months, and 50% have changed their jobs in the past 21 months. The average length workers stay at one job is about 2 years. Moreover, workers who entered the labour market in 2000 work an average of 3.8 years at one job, but those who entered in 2008 lasted only 1.4 years. This suggests a broad trend of increasing ‘short-term work’.

While some commentaries have blamed workers for the high turnover rate, because of their supposed unwillingness to ‘eat bitterness’, unlike their first generation of migrant workers, the joint report helps highlight that more than one third of the surveyed workers do not have any improvement in terms of wage, skill and position over their last job. Is it then any wonder that the limited prospects have driven workers to change jobs so frequently? And when they do change to another job after several months of looking, they are likely to end up with similar kinds of jobs. In the words of the report, their flow tends to be ‘horizontal’.

One reason for the job-hopping is that employers provide little or no skill training. Whatever training is available is generally borne by the official unions, producing better trained workers while socialising the costs. Rarely will there be any seniority system and career ladder for migrant workers in the private sector. More importantly, many employers still refuse to sign labour contracts with workers, thus offering little employment security.

Also, interestingly, the report finds that the more educated workers tend to switch jobs more often. Those with a three-year technical college degree are likely to work at a job for only 1.19 years in contrast to those with junior high school education (2.1 years), or senior high school/technical school (2.19 years). Those with higher education might find their jobs more disappointing against their higher expectations. But it also reflects the fact that manufacturing jobs in China built on low-skilled cheap labour cannot accommodate workers with higher education with better pays and conditions.

Click below to download the second translation, which provides more details about the report:

Low Wages and Lack of Security: Trend of Short-Term Work for New Generation of Migrant Workers


The Chinese media has given ample coverage of the report and the issue of short-term work. What is missing from the general discussion is attention to class and class structure. Of course, the upward mobility of migrant workers since the 1990s has not been great. But in the past two decades, while many urban residents have joined the emerging middle class, migrant workers find themselves increasingly stuck in a consolidated class structure, essentially constituting a permanent low-waged stratum of the working class.

While education has often been seen as a sure way to achieve upward social mobility, it is not the case for many migrant workers with 12 or even 15 years of school and college education. In December 2011, the China Youth Daily features the story of the disappointment of a father who puts much hope in his son’s college education. But three years after college graduation, his son earned only 1,500 yuan a month that is much less than what his father earned as a migrant worker. The story symbolises the situation facing large number of young workers, and the sons and daughters of workers who are forced to serve as cheap labour even with many years of formal education.

As noted, while their parents’ generation might have taken any job, the new or second generation of migrant workers has a much higher expectation of urban lives. But their aspirations often cannot be met not only because of depressed wages but also their second class citizen status due to the household registration system and social discrimination against rural population. This necessarily generates discontent and frustration. Many remain passive and spend their time playing in internet cafes or watching television.

But it is also evident that for some workers, if their jobs do not give them any hope of advancement they might choose to organise and strike for a better deal. And it is not difficult to find their sympathetic co-workers supporting them. It is well to remember that the 2010 Honda strike was initiated by two workers who already made up their mind to quit but decided that they might as well strike for something better, and the striking workers scored a victory whose implication goes far behind wage increases.


Thanks Martin and Paul for translating the two documents and Keegan for proofreading the translations.

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