A History of Work:From the Iron Rice Bowl to Glass Ceilings and Beyond

Article by XIANEASE

China is constantly changing, and over the years, the way that people work has likewise changed. The rapid transformation of labor over a relatively short period of time has resulted in massive changes with in society, and the continued progression towards the future continues to have ripple effects on the rest of society as well. As many of us are living in China, and will feel the effects of these changes, it is worth taking a closer look at how things have come to be as they are, and where they might be going in the future.

If we are to understand labor relations in the China’s modern era, we must first look at what it was like before the modern era. For much of Chinese history, China was a primarily agrarian society, with many small farms and craftsman forming a great majority of the population. Society was organized in a manner, similar to European feudalism, but with its own unique characteristics. This held true, in large part, up through the fall of the Qing dynasty and into the mid-20th century.

After the end of the Chinese civil war, the country embarked on a campaign of rapid modernization, attempting to leap frog past the early stages of the industrial era. This mass restructuring of the economy had varying effects, including the greater concentration of people into cities, a trend that continues to this day. At this time, most companies were state-run enterprises and jobs were often guaranteed for life, with salaries often being paid regardless of output, similar to the situation in the USSR and other countries at the time. This job stability was sometimes called the ‘iron rice bowl’ as it guaranteed the basic living requirement of workers.

Labor and economic reforms that were introduced in the late 1970s and 1980s effectively ended this policy, as the country opened up to both outside investment and domestic private enterprise. This ‘socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics’ resulted in many people leaving their factory jobs to work in private enterprises. The security of the position in state-owned companies was replaced by the higher salaried, but more risky, positions in the rising private sector.

It was during this reform period that China became the ‘workshop of the world’ continuing the trend of urbanization. In 1982, it was estimated that 20.9% of the population was urbanized. By 2017, that number was up to 58.5% . In addition, the demographics of that working population were changing. According to a World Bank paper on gender demographics in China, in 1982, 81.55% of the female population were employed in the country, whereas by 2000, that number had dropped to 76.88%. Traditional gender roles still play a large part in modern Chinese society, and this has had an impact on the workplace. It is not uncommon for job recruitment ads to explicitly state that a job is for ‘men only’ or to list physical requirements for female staff. In 2019, the practice of instituting gender requirements or other discriminatory measures for job positions was prohibited by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, but some companies still persist with these practices. Still, China ranks high in the proportion of female leadership, especially in regards to female CEOs, according to the 2011 Grant Thorton International Business Report, with 19% of companies being run by women, as opposed to the global average of 8%. Since 2010, the percentage of female students enrolled in undergraduate programs in China has been slightly higher than male students.

When it comes to labor relations, 302 million workers in the country are a member of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, an organization that is the sole trade union that is legally allowed to operate in the country. The union is sub-divided into 10 national industrial unions, which have 31 regional federations and 2.8 million primary trade union organizations. Founded on May 1st, 1925, the organization has come under pressure from the government to better represent its members in trade negotiations. In 2013, General Secretary Xi Jinping addressed the leaders of the ACTFU, requesting them to “step up efforts to safeguard the legitimate interest of workers”.

As China’s economy continues to grow and change, the industries in which people are employed have begun to shift as well. In 2008, 39.6% of the laborers in the country were employed in the agricultural sector, while just 33.2% were in the services sector. By 2018, the numbers had more than inverted, with only 26.1% of workers employed in the agricultural sector, while 46.3% in the services sector.

As companies begin to look towards more global ambitions the demand for highly-skilled, technologically-savvy workers has been increasing year-by-year, including a demand for workers who can speak more than one language. This trend is likely to continue, as the Belt and Road Initiative continues to encourage companies to expand further and further.

There is no telling exactly what work will look like in the future, but the recent epidemic has shown that there is more flexibility in how companies might operate. With the expansion of new technologies, the way that people work in China will likely continue to change as rapidly as it grows.