What's behind the latest spate of labor unrest in China?
Demographics, says Stephen Green, the chief China economist for Standard Chartered Bank.
In a research note, Green says the number of entrants to China's workforce has been falling for the past few years. He deduces this from education statistics that show the effects of China's one-child family policy, introduced in the late 1970s, rippling through the school system. Primary school enrollment hit a peak in 1994 and has been falling ever since; secondary school enrollment peaked in 2003; applications for the college entrance 'gao kao' exam peaked in 2008. It stands to reason that the same dynamics are at work in the labor market.
These demographic trends, on top of strong economic growth and job creation over the past 20 years, mean that surplus labor in the countryside has now been more or less fully absorbed.
The result is upward pressure on wages (pay in the manufacturing sector has been rising by 5-10% each year since 2003, except last year).
Recent demands for higher pay in factories along the coast have been further fuelled by a booming economy since the middle of last year, linked to the stimulus, and a shift in manufacturing to central and western China, making workers more reluctant to travel long distances to find work.
Green is not alone in seeing an end to China's labor surplus: A Reuters news column Thursday made similar points, talking of a turning point in China's massive supply of cheap labor. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/06/17/china-hits-a-welcome-turning-point/
However, Louis Kuijs, senior economist at the World Bank in Beijing, isn't sure China has reached such a point yet. 'I would find it hard to believe China's surplus labor has already dried up,' he told reporters Friday. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704289504575313580184760788.html
To be sure, Green is reluctant to declare the end of cheap labor in China. After all, he notes, tens of millions of manufacturing workers still make only 1,500 yuan ($220) a month, roughly 5% of what their U.S. counterparts earn.
So what does all this mean for companies operating in China? According to Green, continued average annual pay increases of 5-10%; escalating pressure to comply with legal requirements on social security (and labor troubles for firms that resist); a more rapid push inland; faster mechanization to improve worker productivity.
Green isn't too worried about inflation - so long as wage growth broadly tracks GDP expansion.
在于人口因素──渣打银行(Standard Chartered Bank)首席中国经济学家王志浩(Stephen Green)如是说。
但世界银行(World Bank)驻北京高级经济学家高路易(Louis Kuijs)不太肯定中国是不是已经走到了这样一个拐点。他在周五对媒体记者说，说中国的过剩劳动力供应已经枯竭，我会觉得难以相信。