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China 2006

Welder for Hire

Julie Small Dec 14, 2005

In China when you need help with your business or your home, you go down to the labor market to hire somebody. To get a feel for how it works a few of us visited one in the western city of Chengdu.

This labor market is the world’s most organized version of the day laborer pools you see outside Home Depots in the United States, and on a much larger scale.

About one thousand guys wait inside a where house for the right opportunity or just about any opportunity. They stand mostly or crouch on haunches in a rag tag stream. Those who can afford it pay a calligrapher to scrawl their profession in thick black characters on a two foot by two foot piece of butcher paper. They set the sign at their feet and use pebbles to keep it in place.

One guy says he’s a welder and he has a job already but he’d like a better one.

Another man says he’s an electrician, very skilled.

One man’s a chef. He can cook western style food as well as Chinese, he says.

I’ve been in the labor market about ten minutes asking these men through a translator how much they charge, how often they work, and where they’re from, when two men start shoving each other and yelling. Turns out they’re fighting about who gets to stand closest to me. Only 50 out of a thousand workers will get a job on any given day, and no guarantee that it will last. So, everyone is pushing to talk to the woman from California who must look rich and a little lost.

We decide to leave before the situation worsens.

The desperation is palpable. It forces people to take risks.

On the way out my translator points to signs painted all over the outside of the where house urging people to go to legal markets sponsored by the government and to avoid the dangers of the black market economy.

China is a frontier economy– a Wild, Wild West — where anything can happen and usually does. Laborers report that some people who hire them either refuse to pay them after they’ve completed a job, or pay less than promised. When that happens, there’s no recourse. That happens a lot. For women, it can be worse. Employers sometimes rape or sexually harass them in addition to withholding their pay.

The government can’t stop the flow of migrant laborers to the cities. You only have to be in China a few minutes to feel the buzz of a people on the move to make money. And that means people move where the money is. But the government tries to provide some safety net. At its labor market a prospective employer negotiates a rate of pay with a worker first, then the two go to an office where an official writes up a contract that both parties sign. But in a country where written contracts count for little, you have to wonder if anyone will honor it.

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