David R. Henderson  

I Was a Chinese Laborer

The New Yorker on the E... Political Economy of the Zero ...
FLA [Fair Labor Association] found that during some periods over the past 12 months, workers at all three facilities worked an average of more than 60 hours per week, exceeding the FLA code and Apple's own standard. The audits found there were several months in the past year in which the majority of workers exceeded China's legal maximum of 36 overtime hours a month.
This is from Jessica E. Vascellaro, "Audit Faults Apple Supplier," Wall Street Journal, March 30.

In the next paragraph, she writes:

The association said Foxconn agreed to bring its factories within China's legal limits of 40 hours of work per week and 36 hours maximum overtime per month by July 2013. That would require more than halving the average hours of overtime, which the report pegged at 80 hours a month. FLA said Foxconn would need to recruit tens of thousands of extra workers to comply.

When I worked in a nickel mine in 1969, I worked 6 days a week. Some weeks we worked 8 hours a day, giving us 8 hours of overtime in week. Some weeks we worked 10 hours a day, giving us 20 hours of overtime in a week. In any given month I worked at least 40 and probably more like 60 hours of overtime. I wanted to. I needed the money to pay for my last year of college. I bet many of those Chinese laborers want to also. So whenever you see such articles and you think that sympathizing with the workers means favoring preventing them from working more hours, think about it. They are there voluntarily. They wouldn't be working there if they weren't. Yes, some of them might prefer to work a few fewer overtime hours and don't get the option. I would bet that over 80% of them want all the overtime hours they get.

UPDATE: I had thought that philosopher Stephen Hicks was a fellow Canadian. It turns out that he was a fellow Chinese laborer.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Jack writes:

Professor: You are entirely right, but the article also reports interviews with workers who do NOT wish to work overtime, but fear that they will be fired if they do not participate in significant overtime hours. In that case, workers are not freely choosing to work overtime. They are choosing work with overtime over no work at all.

Are these interviews representative or cherry-picked to make a better, left-leaning story? I don't know.

David R. Henderson writes:

Right. That’s why I granted the point. So they aren’t freely choosing on the margin, but they are freely choosing the job. Assuming you have a job--I bet you do--you can probably think of many things on the job you would want to be different. We all make tradeoffs.

Dan writes:

Let me see if I understand this: you *chose* to work overtime, in order to pay for *college*. You were a middle-class American, guaranteed worker rights (such as the right to choose whether to work overtime), working to pursue higher education, a purely elective, not survival, pursuit. And you're comparing that to Chinese workers forced to work overtime or they lose their job (and I'm willing to bet in almost every case they aren't working to pursue higher education, they're working to survive). Interesting.

David R. Henderson writes:

No, you don’t understand this correctly. If I had refused to work overtime, I would not have been able to keep the job. As I mentioned, 6-day weeks and 8 to 10-hour days were standard. So in that sense, I was in the same position as the Chinese worker.

Except for the big exception you note: I was working to pay for college; they are working to survive. That should make us even more upset about people who want to limit that.

Yang writes:

First of all, probably the first sensible article on Chinese labour condition I have read in a long time, Mr. Henderson.

I would point out, though, that people working Foxconn are probably not working to survive. They are in roughly the same position as yours. Those factories that don't get reported by western liberal media are the ones that hiring workers to keep them alive. Thank God they are not reported.

And yes, my aunt got laid off in 2008 when the new labour law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Contract_Law_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China
came out.

And of course, in NYT's terms, it was great achievement.

goddinpotty writes:

And what does the tendency of Foxconn workers to commit suicide say about their revealed preferences?

John S writes:

@goddinpotty, what does the tendency of Foxconn workers to commit suicide at lower rates than other Chinese workers say about their revealed preferences?

Rick Weber writes:

I feel like economists will routinely say (about such situations) "Leisure is a normal good," but I feel that the rhetoric ought to be taken a step further.

We should be saying, leisure is a good, and one that we do not have access to in a state of nature (okay, very limited access to). Every hour of leisure we gain is an hour we bought, and because leisure is a normal good it would be a fair metaphor to say that forcing someone to buy leisure is akin to forcing them to buy an ipod.

Joseph Sunde writes:

In these types of discussions, I always wonder how the whole "salaried but working tons of overtime" thing fits in.

My employer expects me to get projects done, regardless of whether I think the work won't get done in a 40-hour work week or not. There are many weeks I work 60-70 hours, even though I am not compensated extra for it. Is this a form of "exploitation"? I may disagree with my employers on their expectations and wish they hired me some help, but overall, I've never seen the arrangement as "unfair" or "exploitative."

Ken B writes:

If one objects to workers being obligated to work overtime, how about workers denied the chance to work overtime?

If we take 40 hours a week as some magical standard, what to make of a country where you can't work more than 35?

Ken B writes:

"We should be saying, leisure is a good, and one that we do not have access to in a state of nature (okay, very limited access to). "

Oddly this seems not to be true. Hunter gatherers seem to have and have had a lot of leisure. As did many societies Cook stumbled upon.

Randy writes:

I work in a salaried position in which many "extra" hours/tasks are considered part of the job. During the busy seasons I routinely put in 60 to 70 hour weeks (not even counting weekend days away from home). So I believe I am qualified to contribute.

This can be seen as a matter for personal consideration. I am paid a finite amount for what often seems like infinite expectations. Failing to comply would likely mean losing my job. But I have reached the point that I am ready to leave, as no amount of additional money could make me stay... and that is the balancing factor. That is, the expectations cannot really be infinite or, at some point, the workers can and will take action in response - leaving, slow downs, subversion, even sabatoge, spring to mind. So, does political action have a place in this relationship? Well, yes. Political action, in this case, is a form of subversion. It is just another possible response that managers must consider when weighing the costs and benefits of pushing workers to the edge.

Floccina writes:

I often worked more that 60 hours a week until few years after I got married. I started working less because wife pushed and pushed on me to work less.

Pierre Honeyman writes:

I was also a "Chinese labourer" in University. One summer - 4 months - I worked a full time day job and continued my lifeguard job that I relied on for my income throughout the school year. I worked as often as I could life guarding. I often worked 70 hours per week, and I always worked 7 days a week. I had no days off from April until September.

Later, during the dot com boom, I also worked periods of intense overtime, some weeks during critical projects I worked over 80 hours per week, and, since I was on salary, I didn't even get overtime pay. Jack, during this period of time I was also working this because I was worried about being fired - but the work needed to be done, and hiring new people would not have for it done on time. Those of us doing the work at the time had the knowledge needed, and getting others up to speed would have meant missing our deadlines.

I don't think that concern about overtime, per se, is what the issue is with people who complain about the working conditions (that they don't have to endure) at factories like those run by Foxconn. My suspicion is that a lot of this is driven by something else.


Sean writes:
If one objects to workers being obligated to work overtime, how about workers denied the chance to work overtime?

I was in this situation at a job. My employer didn't wish to pay overtime, so I was limited in the hours I could work. I came up with a way around this, but it was inefficient and inconvenient. I would have rather just had the choice to not receive overtime pay and straight-forwardly work the extra hours.

Evan writes:

@Rick Weber

We should be saying, leisure is a good, and one that we do not have access to in a state of nature (okay, very limited access to). Every hour of leisure we gain is an hour we bought, and because leisure is a normal good it would be a fair metaphor to say that forcing someone to buy leisure is akin to forcing them to buy an ipod.

The difference, in this case, is that if you buy an iPod your job is not endangered. If you "buy" leisure by choosing to not work overtime it has the potential to upset your employer and get you fired.
The reason people think they have a right to force people to buy leisure, but not an iPod, is that they believe that many people would choose to purchase more leisure if they weren't worried about the effects that it would have on their employment prospects. Robin Hanson has written about how choosing to work more hours may have a strong signalling component, and that workers end up working more hours than they'd like in order to signal quality. It's sort of similar to Bryan's argument that people buy more education than they really want to keep up with signalling.

The crux of David's argument is that he doesn't think this account is correct. He believes that many people choose to work longer hours because they genuinely desire the money, rather than because of fear of firing or signalling.

Charley Hooper writes:

If you read the whole article about Apple and Foxconn, you'll see that more workers (33.8%) would like to work even more hours than those (17.7%) who would rather work fewer hours.

"Assessing worker sentiment, the report said 48% of respondents thought working hours were reasonable, while 17.7% thought they worked too much. Some 33.8% wanted to work more to earn more, while 64.3% of workers thought their salary wasn't sufficient for basic needs."

harold writes:

Today I learned that...

1) An affluent, privileged Canadian university professor who briefly worked some overtime in a well-regulated nickel mine in Canada, in order to profit from the high (almost certainly, union) rate of overtime pay, is the equivalent of a Chinese factory worker. (Incidentally, when I was young and poor, in Canada, I worked two full time jobs, both physically demanding, got no overtime pay because they were two separate jobs, and averaged about $4 an hour, mainly to survive, also to save for university. Yet I do not consider myself to be the equivalent of a Chinese laborer.)

2) A poll of Chinese workers that has many of them claiming that they "want to work even more" is an accurate expression of their views, and could not possibly reflect a desire to provide the safest answer.

Of course, the question of how we should respond to imported good based on harsh working conditions, when the workers have no better options locally, is a somewhat complex one.

Blatantly false analogies do not help us to find an answer, though.

David Henderson Author Profile Page writes:

Dear harold,
Please see my response to your last point here:

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