Yesterday I was late leaving the house in the morning. The bike ride to work is about 20 minutes and I set out just past 11:43 am. I raced out of my neighborhood, and through the busy streets, dodging vehicles of all shapes and sizes, finally arriving at the barber shop to punch in at 12:01, one minute late, which will result in a 5 mao (.5 RMB) fine.
|Xiao Wang taking an afternoon cat nap between customers.
I put on my apron, looked around the shop for hair to sweep or plastic cups to trash, saw none, and proceeded to join my coworkers at one of the waiting tables. Jiang was reading the newspaper. Zhen Qing was lost in a women’s health magazine. Chen Lin and Jie Lun were playing games on their cell phones. Xiao Fang and Xiao Xia were standing by the counter chatting with Lin Lin. Mr. Zheng was reading sentences aloud out of an English textbook I had given him, and Xiao Wang was sound asleep in one of the barber chairs. There was only one customer in the entire shop, and ten employees. This is the way most of my “mornings” (noon – 2 pm) go before the big 2 o’clock rush. On a previous post, Josh from Peer See commented “In my ample “per hour” employment during high school, I never once had a boss who would’ve accepted me reading magazines on the job. Being busy was encouraged. Looking busy was tolerated. Anything less got you fired.”
This is not the case in my barber shop, nor is it for most work places in China. So long as there is no work to do, we are allowed to read the newspaper, send text messages, draw, play rock-paper-scissors, take naps, listen to music with headphones, eat, smoke cigarettes, talk on the phone, take photos, and hang out in front of the shop sitting on parked motorcycles, all of this in plain view of the customers.
So why are Chinese shops so lax on this type of behavior? And why doesn’t anybody plug the obvious hole in the efficiency? Or would a better question be why are American shops so uptight about it?
|Little brothers occupying themselves with cell phone games.|
Part of the reason may be the sheer amount of down time at most Chinese jobs. My coworkers often ask me about jobs I have worked in the United States. One day Cheng Qing asked me “What is the biggest difference between jobs you have worked in the US, and your job here in the shop?”
Cheng Qing was referring to the minimum wage jobs I had told him about working in high school, which both socially and economically would be somewhat analogous to working in a barber shop in China.
“The biggest difference,” I told him, “is that if you were working in the US, you would most likely be working less hours, but doing a lot more work during that time.”
By my own personal observations, on an average day, most employees in the barber shop spend between 5 and 6 hours of their 11 hour shifts doing actual work The rest of the time is devoted to those activities I mentioned above.
|Me trying to pass the time with the Fuzhou Strait News.|
Why so much downtime? In China there are very few part time available to individuals with low education levels. In the barber shop all employees must work full time (11 hours a day, 27 days per month). Their wages are calculated on a per-task (i.e. hair wash, perm, etc.) rate plus a small fixed monthly salary. Although we clock in and clock out every day, nobody is paid by hour, and the time clock is only a means for Mr. Zheng to assure nobody is showing up late or leaving early.
From Mr. Zheng’s perspective, there is no incentive for him to allow his workers to leave early or come in late when there is no work to be done. He will not be lowering his expenditures as he would had he been paying his employees on an hourly rate. The overall result is that employees are left working long hours, during which a good deal of the time is spent doing nothing at all. This is the mentality of most Chinese small business owners who are also paying their employees monthly salaries for long, unproductive hours. The result is that at any given moment during the day in China, there are likely several hundred million people doing exactly what we do every day in the barber shop from noon to 2 o’clock.
In the US, sitting around and tending to one’s own personal needs, regardless of how few customers and how many employees there are, is unacceptable. Any of those time-killing activities listed above would have been restricted by both time (designated breaks) and place (designated break room) at any of the low paying American jobs I worked. Yet in China, this is completely acceptable, in both the eyes of both managers and clients…now if you’ll excuse me I need to get back to my game of cell phone Tetris.