Why Can’t China’s Workers Unite on Overtime?
Already this year, a string of high-profile worker deaths in China’s tech sector has set off yet another debate about overtime culture and toxic competition-fueled “involution” at the country’s white-collar workplaces.But there’s one voice largely absent from the recent rage against overtime: that of China’s blue-collar workers. Why?
The survey data pertaining to this question tells an interesting story. According to a 2018 paper by the academic Zhuang Jiachi, 46% of white-collar workers identified themselves as being “overworked,” compared with just 35.5% of manual laborers. Yet the white-collar workers were 30 percentage points less likely to have actually worked overtime in the previous week than their blue-collar counterparts.
That is to say, Zhuang found white-collar workers more likely than blue-collar workers to identify their weekly hours as working “overtime,” when their recent schedules objectively did not exceed 40 hours. Meanwhile, blue-collar workers are more likely to underestimate the extent they have worked overtime. This universal tendency to misstate working hours, albeit in opposite directions, calls into question traditional assumptions that white-collar professionals complain more because they are better educated or better understand China’s labor laws.
In my own fieldwork, I have encountered many blue-collar workers who, despite having little in the way of formal education, are able to use labor laws to defend their rights. So then why are they so silent during the current anti-overtime campaign? Because, crucially, many blue-collar workers do not consider working overtime to be an evil. If anything, in my fieldwork I have found many blue-collar workers favor jobs that provide them with more chances to work overtime. Reliant on overtime pay, wrapping up at 6 p.m. is a luxury they cannot afford.
In many recruitment advertisements targeting blue-collar workers, overtime work is not just implied but highlighted, even guaranteed. A telling Foxconn advertisement from last year assures applicants, “The first three months of base salary for Foxconn’s Zhengzhou campus is 1,900 yuan ($290) per month; the comprehensive salary is 2,800-3,500 yuan (overtime included) … Overtime will be no less than 60 hours per month.”
There are several crucial pieces of information to be obtained from this advertisement. First of all, the base salary for the first three months in this advertisement is exactly the minimum wage of the province where the factory is located. This is typical for blue-collar jobs. Although many workers actually earn much more than the minimum wage, their additional pay comes from working overtime rather than higher hourly rates. In this case, if a formal employee works the maximum schedule allowed on paper, their salary will increase almost 100%, from 2,100 yuan to almost 4,000 yuan a month.
Second, the selling point of this advertisement is that monthly overtime will not be less than 60 hours. As the base salary is so low, working overtime is a selling point instead of a warning sign. Some factories are not popular among workers because they don’t have enough orders to provide workers with overtime, and some factory workers who enjoy relatively relaxed schedules characterize themselves as “lazy” and going to seed in an easy factory.
It’s not that Chinese blue-collar workers are workaholics. Zhuang’s research found that there are disparities in attitudes toward overtime, even among this group. In particular, those who reported working primarily just to get by were less likely to identify themselves as working “overtime.” Those in slightly less dire material circumstances, on the other hand, were more likely to chafe at longer schedules. In other words, it is not white-collar workers’ superior education that makes them more likely to problematize overtime, but blue-collar workers’ need to make enough to survive that makes them less likely to view overtime as a problem.
Indeed, the extreme overtime schedules so loathed by white-collar workers have been plaguing blue-collar workers for a long time. It’s likely white-collar professionals have grown disillusioned more quickly with the neoliberal myth that “effort is rewarded” because many of them do not receive or don’t need to rely on the extra pay or bonuses they get in exchange for overtime.
Although the companies that employ white-collar and blue-collar workers both want to extract as much surplus value as they can from their staff, they use different strategies to do so. While Foxconn workers accept low hourly pay in exchange for the promise of making more in overtime, office bosses lure prospective employees with promises of a fulfilling company culture in which employees “voluntarily” work overtime to advance their future career prospects and earning power. It doesn’t take long for professionals to see through these systems and feel disillusioned, however.
If standing up to bosses is not easy, it is probably easier to question overtime when one’s livelihood doesn’t absolutely depend on it. Compounding the issue is that while inflation has been on the rise, the minimum wage has remained stagnant in much of the country. The minimum wage of the southern Guangdong province, one of China’s biggest manufacturing hubs, hasn’t budged since 2018. And because many blue-collar workers are also migrants, they face even higher barriers to accessing public goods in the cities where they work, further incentivizing them to accept overtime schedules.
Interestingly, the grueling schedules of white-collar professionals have led many to start self-identifying as “laborers,” or dagong ren — a term commonly used by blue-collar workers. This both suggests the potential for cross-class solidarity, while also revealing the deep inequality within the Chinese working class: White-collar workers are problematizing overtime by adopting what used to be a blue-collar identity, even though problematizing overtime is a privilege blue-collar workers simply do not have.
We all have the right to work with dignity, even if we are still many steps away from the day blue-collar workers can be freed from base subsistence concerns and are able to demand less overtime. But that disparity doesn’t mean we should write off white-collar workers’ complaints as privileged whining. While white-collar workers may not be the most exploited group of Chinese laborers, the struggle for labor rights often thrives not where exploitation is the most severe, but where workers have the most bargaining power. I only hope white-collar professionals don’t merely use the “worker” identity to wallow in their suffering, but also take responsibility to push for better labor protections and build a cross-class solidarity capable of benefitting all workers.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Workers take a break at a factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, 2012. Zhan Youbing/People Visual)