Loading up on hours suits many workers

Household bills are enough of a motivation to stay back on the assembly line, despite labour laws aimed at limiting shifts as a rights issue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 2013, 3:49am

Li Ruoyu works at Wuxi Hongding Textile Fibre in Henan province to support his two children. He says he does not mind working extra hours - in fact, the more the better.

"I'd like to work during weekends because the factory also provides free meals," said Li, who is in his 40s. "If I don't work, not only can I not make extra money I will have to spend my own money."

Li's experience appears contrary to the concerns in a report by the Fair Labour Association, a Washington-based group, this month that put the spotlight on mainland factory conditions.

The group, which looked into practices at Foxconn Technology Group, said the manufacturer was facing challenges in adapting its work arrangements to the shorter hours required under labour laws.

The report said workers at the company's three factories that it monitored worked usually between 40 and 60 hours during every week of the period under review.

Cutting hours to the legal limit of 40 hours, plus an average of nine hours of overtime a week, was a big task, it said.

Foxconn, which makes Apple iPhones and iPads, has been under close observation in the past two years after the suicides of at least 10 employees in 2010.

Wang Xueshan, a labour law expert with Jinguang Law Firm, said working extra hours was a commonly seen phenomenon in many mainland enterprises, not just Foxconn.

"Foxconn is under the spotlight only because of the suicides. In fact, overtime work is widespread among plants all across the country," Wang said.

What seemed paradoxical, he said, was that while the labour law and workers protection organisations were trying to protect employees from working beyond the legal working hours, many workers preferred doing overtime because that substantially increased their income. Workers are paid 1.5 times their standard salary by hour from Monday to Friday for work beyond eight hours, and twice that during weekends.

Wang said: "Enterprises need workers' agreement to do extra work. Workers are not forced to do it."

But workers needed to be better protected in other aspects, he said. "For example, the standard salary is too low, part of the payment is not called a salary but a bonus, so it is not included into the base when extra hours are paid," he said.

A quota-based production system presents other problems. This applies when some assembly workers are paid not according to working hours but by their output. "If they can't finish their quotas during eight hours, they will continue working without being considered as doing extra work," Wang said.

The textile plant in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, is one such quota-based workplace. General manager Chen Tao said this was a choice that workers welcomed. "Calculating by piece work, my workers make more earnings than when calculated by working hours," she said.

The minimum monthly salary in Wuxi is 1,350 yuan (HK$1710), but this is not going to entice any workers in reality, according to Chen. "The bottom line is 2,500 yuan in real life," she said.

"If a worker does four hours extra everyday, he or she will make 1,700 yuan from overtime work. But calculating by pieces, my workers make between 4,000 and 4,700 yuan a month."

Chen said workers aged above 40 were usually enthusiastic to work because they had families to support, but not so the young generation. "The older generation will grow nervous if in a whole week they are not asked to do extra, but the young people don't want to."

The National Statistics Bureau said this week that there were 262.6 million migrant workers last year, compared with 252.8 million in 2011. Despite the growth in total numbers, the percentage of workers below 40 fell to 59.3 per cent last year from 70 per cent in 2008. According to the latest data, 35.7 per cent of migrant workers were in the manufacturing sector, while 18.4 per cent worked in construction.

Not all workers want the extra hours. Zhou Shouheng, of Henan, has been working in Beijing's construction sector for nearly 10 years. "Nearly all my income is from day work. After that, nobody wants to do any extra because we are so worn out. Anyway, the company very rarely asks us to do so, unless there is a really urgent task," he said.