Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Growth Is Not Development: The Chinese Labor Experience

Growth is not development.  The Chinese labor experience is a good example of this.  In brief, despite record rates of growth, the Chinese economy has failed to generate formal sector jobs.  In fact, there were fewer formal sector urban workers employed in 2010 than in 1990.  All the job growth has been outside the formal sector, which means that a growing percentage of Chinese workers are not covered by the country’s labor law, and their wages, benefits, and working conditions are not captured by official Chinese labor statistics.

From 1979 until 2010, China recorded an average annual GDP growth rate of approximately 10%, a thirty year growth rate unmatched by any other country.  The country’s rate of growth is now slowing, from 10.6% in 2010, to 7.7% in 2012, and 7.4% in 2014.  Of course those are official rates of growth.  According to most analysts, Chinese growth was probably closer to 5% in 2014 and, despite government efforts, likely to continue to slow.

But what about the labor experience?  In “Misleading Chinese Legal and Statistical Categories: Labor, Individual Entities, and Private Enterprises,” a 2013 article published in the journal Modern China, Philip C.C. Huang describes the evolution and application of Chinese labor law, highlighting its relevance for and growth of different categories of labor.  As he explains, Chinese statistical categories recognize four main types of labor activity based on the legal standing of the employing firm: labor by “employee-workers,” labor by workers employed by legally registered “private enterprises,” labor by people in legally registered “individual entities,” and “unregistered” labor.

Only “employee-workers” are considered formal sector workers and covered by the country’s labor law.  The following table, with numbers expressed in units of 10,000, shows that there were almost 128 million urban formal sector workers employed in China in 2010.

Formal sector

Significantly, as the next table illustrates, both the number and percentage of workers employed in the formal urban economy are shrinking.  The number employed in the formal economy in 2010 was less than the number employed in 1990.  As of 2010, only 36.8% of all workers in the urban economy were employed in formal sector jobs.  In short, all the growth in urban employment over recent decades has been in categories not covered by Chinese labor law, which means that those workers are not covered by legally established minimum wage, overtime regulations, and social benefit requirements.

labor trends

Who are the workers employed outside the formal sector?  “Private enterprises” are mainly legally registered small-scale businesses averaging 13-15 people.  As Huang describes: “They are also as a rule not formally incorporated as a limited liability entity with separate ‘legal person’ status and are therefore not considered legal ‘employing units’ that are involved in ‘labor relations’. . . . These small businesses rely mainly on the cheapest labor available, the majority of them on disemployed workers and peasant-workers, who are considered to be only in a casual work relationship with them and for whom they need provide no benefits.”

“Individual entities” include legally registered small scale operations employing one or perhaps two people, usually the owner and a family member or friend.  In the largest cities, these workers are “largely engaged in wholesale and retail trade (mainly of daily necessities and clothing), followed by small and modest eateries and hostels, domestic and other services, and transport work. . . .Regardless, the great majority of the people operating the individual entities come from the ranks of the disemployed urban workers and the migrant peasant-workers.”

“Unregistered” workers are those, as the category name implies, whose work is unregistered and therefore largely illegal or extralegal.  They are primarily “newer and less established peasants-workers working in the lowest levels of the informal economy, as temporary construction workers, janitors, itinerant peddlers or stall keepers, guards standing outside residential compounds and commercial buildings the help in eateries and hostels domestic servants manual transport and loading-unloading workers, and the like, many of whom work in the shadow of the law without permits, truly members of the so-called floating population.”

Unregistered workers “appear in the official state statistical tallies only as the difference between those who have registered with the official state administrative entities and the actual numbers of laborers counted up by the decennial population censuses (which have made every effort to enumerate every person living and working in the cities).”  As we can see from the table above, the number of unregistered urban workers are quickly catching up to the number of formal sector urban workers.

The critical point here is that despite record rates of growth few formal sector jobs have been created in urban areas.  That means that official Chinese labor laws and regulations cover a relatively small and declining share of Chinese urban sector workers.  As a consequence, the great majority of urban workers suffer from conditions far worse than do formal sector workers.

At the same time, things are far from rosy for most formal sector workers.  For example, many companies, especially foreign owned companies, have been actively seeking to weaken formal sector job rights by employing so-called dispatched workers and student interns to avoid paying the wages and benefits mandated by Chinese labor law.  It is therefore not surprising, as recent labor struggles make clear, that even workers in the formal sector have been forced to take direct action to ensure compliance with their country’s labor laws and improve their working conditions.


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