“Guolaosi, we are working ourselves to death!” I looked at my interlocutor, a young graduate from a prestigious university in Beijing, and asked what she meant.
“Imagine. Tens of millions of young graduates compete for only several millions of decently paid jobs. We easily work eleven hours a day, spend another three hours in traffic and then retreat to a studio that we share with four others because we still cannot pay the rent. On top of that, our work is not even interesting. We are slowly being turned into human machines.”
The phenomenon of guolaosi also appears to exist outside China. It is called karōshi in Japan, gwarosa in South Korea. It was only after I did some research that their true bearing became clear: Asia is experiencing a wrecking labour market crisis. Here’s why.
Between 2006 and 2015, the ten most populous countries in the region created about 135 million new jobs. That seems a lot, but it is not, because the labour force – the number of people between 16 and 65 years old – grew by 245 million during that same period.
In other words, Asia did not generate enough jobs to keep up with population growth. The employment deficit was the largest in India, China, and Pakistan, at 79 million, 23 million and 9 million respectively. To some extent, the effects of this deficit are mitigated, because women often stay home. Nevertheless, this evolution inevitably exacerbates underemployment, informal employment and insufferable competition.
Asia’s labour market crisis is not only a matter of a shortage of jobs; many jobs also hardly pay enough to keep up with the rising cost of living. Take India. Minimum wages doubled since 2006, but so did consumer prices. In Indonesia monthly wages have increased by 85 per cent since 2006, prices 65 per cent. In the Philippines this ratio was 71 to 49 per cent, in South Korea 47 to 28 per cent. If one deducts the higher costs of living, real annual growth of wages could thus be as low as 2 per cent. A large part of the higher salaries is thus absorbed by the higher cost of living.
China was the main exception, with wages growing faster than consumer prices. Yet, still, this seems difficult to reconcile with my impression that many workers in China are forced to leave relatively cheap small cities for much smaller but more expensive housing in the megacities where most of the new jobs are created. As my interlocutor in Beijing said: “You can buy everything here, but it costs an awful lot. We have to pay for insurance, transportation and many sorts of other services that cost far less in my home city.”
If that was not enough, surveys show more than one third of jobs in Asia are not gratifying. Job satisfaction is extremely low in countries like Vietnam, China, South Korea and Japan. The effect of people being turned into machines is the clearest in the manufacturing sector and particularly in the mammoth assembling plants of global electronics and clothes producers.
If the main challenge in small factories is security, the problem in those large plants is monotony. The human contribution to the production process is confined to one single task, involving a single movement and a single part of the brain. In the worst cases, protection requires workers to literally seal off their body for a whole day by using surgical masks, ear plugs, nose plugs and protective suits. They visibly transform into robots.
The tragedy is that the services sector does not necessarily fare better. Yes, you have those rare opportunities: creative designers, IT engineers or copywriters who get a well-paid job and can drive back in their SUV to a decent apartment at a decent hour in the evening. But the vast majority of workers in the service sector do not have that luxury.
I saw clerks in China literally moving files from the one tab to the other, highly educated marketers scavenging the internet for addresses to put on a mailing list with a target of one per minute! Why no software, I asked. “It is still cheaper to hire young graduates for such jobs than to buy software and all its expensive updates,” a HR manager explained in a cafeteria in one tall office tower in Chaoyang, Beijing.
It is not that, because these young workers do not yet protest, there is no crisis. In fact, it is mind-blowing that more than two centuries after the industrial revolution started in Europe, in spite of Chinese GDP per capita being five times larger than in my country at the peak of our industrial revolution around 1860, people still have to work in such conditions.
Even if it lifts people out of poverty, we see material poverty being replaced with material hardship. This is thus a human tragedy in the first place. But it also comes with strategic consequences. In a climate of social stress, and dissatisfaction with life, instability becomes more likely. It can be an incubator of unrest, nationalism and other forms of extremism.
Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels