July 19, 2010

From Iron Rice Bowl to Stainless Cafeteria Tray

The Iron Rice Bowl (tiě fàn wǎn in Mandarin) was once the symbol for the lifetime employment and welfare given through many state-run enterprises during Maoist era socialism in China (as well as Taiwan's clientelist developmental-state era). Benefits were channeled and managed through danwei (commonly translated as "work unit"). The colloquial term "rice bowl" means a job and livelihood. Thus to fire someone is to "break his/her rice bowl" (dǎ pò tā de fàn wǎn).

The Iron Rice Bowl was weakened during the reform period under Deng Xiaoping (1978-1990s), and was finally broken under the implementation of the "Socialist Market Economy" and full repudiation of the Maoist planned economy. Under the Hu-Wen administration, full integration into the global market economy under the norms and "harmonization" of the WTO regime has unfolded along with intensive privatization, fiscal decentralization and state retrenchment. Over the past 10+ years, China's rapid growth rate has been fed by footingless labor as well as footloose capital. Major restructuring of the economy and the development of flexible labor has meant that workers' livelihoods (let alone iron rice bowls) have been increasingly fragile and subject to the economic bottom line.

Although China continues to be characterized by many writers as "the world's factory" with limitless labor, a paradoxical outcome has resulted from the restructuring that enabled that rise. The rapid growth of a flexible national workforce—including a massive "floating population" of well over 100 million migrant workers—has also made annual labor shortages typical in the coastal provinces. Beginning in the 2000s, shortages of 10-20% were reported in many factories in Guangdong at the same time that national underemployment continued at crisis rates (official unemployment stats for urban areas persisted at over 10%). This year (2010), the manufacturing hub Dongguan was short over 150,000 workers after the Spring Festival according to the local labor bureau. This, despite increased unemployment and the fact that over 400 factories closed in Dongguan during 2007-2008 (as documented in the amazing photos of Jin Jiangbo).

The concept of the danwei is crucial to understanding how workers are retained and employed as the China's development models and corresponding modes of organizing production and social reproduction have transformed. Fei Xiaotong (費孝通) first formulated descriptions of an 'orthodox' model of post-Mao development and transition in Jiangsu province's "Sunan model." Fei described this model in distinction from the "Wenzhou model" of private enterprise-led growth in Zhejiang province. The Sunan model consisted of collective-run town and village enterprises (TVEs) as a primary engine for growth and industrialization. TVEs mobilized rural labor in industrial networks to distribute labor intensive industries, while enabling economic growth and investment in major cities such as Shanghai.

The current models of development in Jiangsu are much more complex and savvy to global capital, leveraging previous modes of state intervention while allowing for flexibility and private corporate governance. Employers are likewise responding to current conditions with hybrid models of management that take advantage of state-run labor recruitment and infrastructure. While lifelong employment is no longer a consideration, non-wage benefits are an important factor in retaining labor, especially in rapidly growing industries that demand skilled workers.

In my headline example—I call it the Steel Cafeteria Tray (bù xiū gāng cān pán)—workers are housed and boarded in facilities that are actually owned, managed and subsidized by state-run entities such as various special economic zones (SEZs). This model encourages investment by reducing labor management costs and helping to retain labor for longer periods. Private enterprises also use hybrid state-owned private human resource companies that help companies find and even manage and train workers through a temp-dispatch system. For a start-up company with simple labor needs, this system can save up to 80% in HR and management costs.

Pictured below is a cafeteria in the Innovation Park of the Yixing Economic Development Zone. The space of the cafeteria is common to private enterprises, state joint ventures, state-owned private enterprises, and state units such as the Zone administration itself. Factory workers, Zone admin staff, and resident enterprise managers (and researchers) exchange Zone-printed tickets for their meals.

all photos copyright 2010 by J
ia Ching Chen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing this with us. This is a glimpse we dont get through mainstream media.