Thu, Jul 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Western business methods creeping into China

Many Chinese now place working for a foreign firm at the top of their career wish list. So does this mean no more sleeping at the office?

By Virginia Matthews  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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If an office worker in China told you that they were going to "sing a song," you would be forgiven for looking for the nearest karaoke machine, so enthusiastic are many Chinese about their No. 2 hobby of public warbling -- the No. 1 hobby, of course, is chain-smoking accompanied by loud hawking.

But to "sing a song" is actually to nip to the bathroom, which for many workers -- particularly those who work for Chinese-owned or managed firms -- is a privilege usually restricted to timed "comfort" breaks spaced through the working day.

While the right to smoke at work is exercised in most offices -- the thought of workers giving up the weed is unthinkable to most expatriates and Chinese managers -- the right to speak up for yourself, or go on strike is far more controversial.

For despite the inch-by-inch lifting of the Bamboo Curtain and the inevitable Westernization of at least some aspects of life, China's attitude to work remains utterly different to that in Western nations.

While European and US managements have spent the past two or three decades wrestling with the introduction of more humane working practices, the People's Republic of China is stuck in an 1980s mindset "which leaves little room for individual autonomy," says Neil Roden, group HR director at Royal Bank of Scotland, which has a sizeable stake in the Bank of China.

In effect, this means that workers' rights have traditionally been fairly non-existent. Employers can withhold wages and terminate contracts without notice, working conditions are in some cases appalling and job security is, for millions of workers, a far-flung dream.

Although new labour laws enshrining better rights for workers are being discussed by the Chinese parliament, the country's trade unions are firmly part of the state machinery, and more concerned with setting up lunchtime ping-pong sessions than free collective bargaining.

At the extreme, sleeping either next to your workbench or in frugal, single-sex workers' dormitories is still the norm for hundreds of thousands of factory workers, hotel and restaurant staff and junior office personnel, most of whom have traditionally looked to their employers to feed and house as well as to employ them.

Among middle-ranking white collar workers, living conditions are both similar to and utterly different from those of their Western counterparts.

While fast-rising housing costs in cities like Shanghai or Beijing mean that even junior managers will live at home until they are married, those able to lead more independent lives often share cramped kitchen and bathroom facilities with other families.

Not surprisingly for a country that only 30 years ago rated owning a bicycle as the number one must-have (it was a color TV 10 years later), top of the wish list this year is a job with a foreign company; preferably an American one.

Wendy Tian, who chose her English name while still at school -- it is a way of helping out the many foreigners who live in China without speaking a word of Mandarin -- is a 29-year-old graduate PA with a large Chinese electronics firm just outside Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.

Tian spent what she calls the "happiest year of her life" working for an engineering firm in Munich, but returned to China two years ago when her mother developed breast cancer. Her monthly salary is around 1,500 yuan (US$200).

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