Dec 17, 2012

The Right to Work—and Work and Work

When it comes to labor laws, China is far more generous to the worker than the United States is.

Unlike those in the U.S., Chinese workers are entitled to vacation time, triple pay for work on holidays and limits on overtime hours.

When it comes to labor reality, however, China doesn’t enforce most of these statutes—and, in some cases, workers don’t even seem to care for the laws.

That is apparently why employees at Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry in Shenzhen, China, have greeted proposed reforms with skepticism. Although Hon Hai is notorious for being a place of worker suicides, many of the workers there prefer to work long hours.

Why? Restrictions on overtime, if enforced, are good for factory workers who want to go home to their families each day. But very few in Shenzhen do that. Instead, they live in eight-people-to-a-room dormitories, far from home, with a strong determination to earn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

“More than 15 workers on the Shenzhen campus said in interviews that they work more than the legal limit of nine overtime hours a week,” The Wall Street Journal reported today. “A majority said they work 10 to 15 overtime hours and would prefer more, having left their distant homes to make money in this southern Chinese boomtown on the border of Hong Kong.”

So how much should the state intervene in such matters?

work&work

Image source: SMU Central University Libraries.

As Peter Drucker pointed out, labor conditions a century ago would strike most of us today as ripe for government intervention. “One of the earliest laws to limit working hours for adult males—enacted in Austria in 1884—set the working day at 11 hours, six days a week,” Drucker noted in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “Industrial workers, in 1913, everywhere worked a minimum of 3,000 hours a year.”

At the same time, though, when these conditions changed it was in many cases due to factors separate from labor law. For instance, in the United State there are still no legal limits to overtime and no required vacation days, but blue-collar workers have far more leisure time (and, for now, higher wages) than workers in China.

In the past 100 or so years, “half of the expansion in wealth-producing capacity was used to create leisure time through cutting hours worked while steadily increasing pay,” Drucker wrote in The New Realities. “An American worker now puts in 1,800 hours a year compared with 3,300 hours in the early years of the [20th] century.”

Should leisure time be a matter of law, or should it up to custom and the labor market?

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