Long Hours and Little Work

Posted in Barbershop at 4:50 pm by Benjamin Ross

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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.

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  1. Peter Denmark said,

    May 23, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    Tnx for clearing that up. This was one of the nuts I had a hard time cracking the last 2 years.

    I had a feeling things worked that way in many service jobs in China, but asking my wife got me nowhere. She worked in a clothes outlet and always told that they were crazy busy every Monday, when they got new clothes and “just” busy the other days. She worked 11 hours a day, as you do in Mr. Zheng’s. I asked her bout this in details, but never quite got an answer that I was loking for other than “busy”.

    “Busy compared to what?”, would always be the question I had in my mind after a discussion. I had a hunch it worked like this (not that all shops are the same, I know), after seeing many workers stand around in the shops and shopping centers I visited in Shenzhen.

    Everywhere I went I would always see a tons of workers (especially girls) with a blank stares doing nothing. To me thats not work as I know it from the west, but on the other hand I would prefer to work instead of just standing around and watch the clock go backwards slowly.

    On the other hand, I saw the employees working in most restaurants working insanely hard. But maybe I was lucky to hit the rush hours.

  2. Lawrence China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Chinese tends to judge people’s work by their working attitude rather than working result. Among various working attitudes, arriving and leaving on time for work is the most crucial one. Normally the boss likes the one who is usually very punctual arrived at his office, more than another who worked very hard. (But things have changed nowadays. More and more people started to accept the American working way. Working efficiency plays a much more important role in Chinese society now.)

    As far as the boring noon in the barbershop is concerned, I totally understand the tolerance of Mr. Zheng. Since there is no customer, why keeps everybody rushing all over the place?
    (My question: why doesn’t Mr. Zheng reduce some of the workforce, shorten the hours, and save the money? He probably will get more benefit than lost.)

    Last but not least, private business is never a place full of downtime. If the employee is really lazy and affects the business, he will definitely be fired. On the contrary, if one serves in government departments and ministries, no matter how he kills time at work, he won’t be fired. (Obviously his chief’s business remains unharmed, while the state which is violated can’t do anything about it)

    Being busy was encouraged. Standing aside was tolerated. Nothing got you fired.

  3. M. China said,

    May 23, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    I think someone brought up an interesting question:
    why doesn’t Mr. Zheng reduce the number of workers?

    Do your workers also try to study during those hours that are not very busy?

  4. martin China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 1:41 am

    i think its cuz in china ppl dont like to wait.. if they have to wait.. they just leave.. and there is no appointments in barbershops as i have back home..

    so in busy times.. if there r only 5 workers.. maybe they get less $$ because most of the clients leave..

    and in this barbershop there r only a few barbers.. and here barbers take their time to cut your hair.. so they need ppl to give them some time (hair wash)

    well.. thats my point of view..
    sorry for my bad english..

  5. Matt United States said,

    May 24, 2007 at 2:36 am

    What kind of advertising/marketing does Mr. Zheng do? Maybe that would increase the efficiency of his workers and improve the bottom line.

    From my perspective in the U.S., there are lots of jobs with plenty of downtime too. But I’ve also had jobs (newspapers, bookstore clerk) where you were pretty much working all day. Actually, the retail job was one where I was always busy, always moving, always helping someone or waiting for the phone to ring – and this was one of the lowest paid jobs I’ve had, making the California minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. You couldn’t, for example, spend a lot of time reading and commenting on blogs! Even in the newspaper jobs, there was always time to surf the web.

  6. Bernard United States said,

    May 24, 2007 at 2:37 am

    On a similar line of questioning from the other readers, if you’re a small business owner in China, would there be an advantage to implementing a western style system of part time workers and job scheduling based on observed traffic flows for your business?

    I’d be curious to see which business practice would fare better or worse in China.

  7. Odadrek China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 8:26 am

    I’ve thought about this before too…
    I think that in some cases there IS a cost in having so many people standing around doing nothing. In the case of one bar I’m familiar with, the manager often complains that the workers are always leaving and he’s always having to hire and train new workers, who inevitably require time to get things right . He said that he offered them more bonuses, but it didn’t make much difference. I asked him “So why don’t you just give them a day off every week? I know some of them leave because they want to find a job with more time off- especially the students. It’s not like you need them all here every day.” He kind of shrugged and said that’s not how things worked. But I’m still not really sure why.

  8. Jas China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 10:16 am

    This kind of situation is true in most shops, but very sad. Why people waste their time, waste their life to sit around and doing nothing? If MR. Zheng allow them to do anything they like when there is not much customer, why don’t they regard this as a opportunity to improve their profesional skill or devolope some other worthwhile hobby?

  9. James Chiang China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 10:24 am

    As Ben mentioned before, Chinese worker much more interested in the pay differences from western countries than the number of hours worked.

  10. Greg China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Interesting blog. I am sometimes sick of chian bashing, and I assumed this might be another such effort until I looked at your blog. You are not makign silly judgments about the Chinese, and you are seekign to understand. I thought you were makign fun, but you arent. Many aplogies, Ill make a retraction on “Shanghaiist” today.

    Its great that you seek to understand, and you deserve credit for actually “getting your hands dirty” and living the expereince. All the best, Ill follow the blog and look forward to some quality insights.

  11. zuraffo Singapore said,

    May 24, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    To Mr Zheng his workers are probably like part of his extended family, seeing how everyone spent almost all day together. It doesn’t make business sense, but it would be hard to aask someone to work shorter hours and cut someone’s wages when you are also providing for that someone’s shelter and food.

  12. Malcolm China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Yes, I thought this blog was interesting because Ben was actually being pretty thoughtful and at least trying to understand and rationalize what he sees around him. So we can argue here, and it won’t necessarily become a dogfight :)

    Say the best that China ever gets is half as “efficient” (in some sense) as the US. So what ? And just because a place like the US is “efficient”, do I have to be held to that standard ? And even if I did have to be held to that standard, how long did it take for the US to get “efficient” ? And what if I can employ twice as many people, doing things half as efficiently as the US- that’s still better than unemployment and having no income.

    What we are dealing with in China is a mass of low skilled workers- what does an unskilled worker do in his/her spare time (and with his/her likely pay cut if he/she starts working part time at the barbershop) ? There is huge unemploment problem in China already- the key question really is how to create a job that society values and can generate wealth. I was working with some villagers in Ningxia and Qinghai- there is nothing for them to do most of the time, when the harvest is done. What can they do ? How can you employ them ? They would soak up any excess job capacity in days.

    I was chatting with a fruit vendor in Beijing. While we were chatting, he told me to hold on, and he chucked a few rotten peaches 20feet, out into the middle of the street. I said: what was that for ?! (thinking a garbage can is probably a little more efficient) He says: “gives the street sweepers something to do.”

  13. canrun China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Yeah…you know..I gotta retract a comment I made on the Ron Jeremy thread about Ben being a dork. You’ve got MUCH bigger stones that I ever would have to do what you’re doing and I offer a sincere mea culpa. Best of luck to you and I hope success finds you the way it has Hessler, Goldkorn, Pomfret, et al. Ok…enough ass kissing. I’ve gotta get to work. Go check your messages!

  14. james United States said,

    May 24, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Doesn’t anyone see this massive overemployment as huge problem? I mean, economically, how sustainable is this in the long run? Sure makes things easy for managers in the short run as they don’t have to worry much about a major part of operational efficiency. But when wages rise, and I expect they will at some point things are going to change pretty quick.

  15. dezza Hong Kong said,

    May 24, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    This employment issue is very interesting. I’ve heard some local governments have unofficial clauses with local business owners whereby the latter must hire a certain number of employee. While we foreigners may see overemployment as a huge problem, for China as a whole, there is massive unemployment due to the closing of hundreds/thousands of state owned enterprises and jobs are of paramount importance to the sustainability of one party rule. This sensitive employment issue is tied directly with all that crap about ‘social harmony’ that Beijing keeps talking about but has no idea how to reach. Yes, 15 workers in an empty shop is inefficient and a waste of human resources but that’s better than 15 unemployed workers causing a riot because the local government can’t provide enough jobs for everyone. Substitute the local barber shop situation to coal mines, polluting factories, construction of useless infrastructure, etc and you get the picture..jobs will keep idle hands socially harmonious..for now…

  16. Malcolm China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    I just reread my post- if I could tone down the language, I would- my apologies- only looking for a little constructive argumentation.

  17. Rene China said,

    May 24, 2007 at 7:20 pm


    Something I’m curious about: has your presence affected the flow of business in the shop in any way? My apologies if you’ve addressed this before in an entry or in a comment.

  18. Alan United States said,

    May 25, 2007 at 12:42 am

    I saw the similar inefficiency for some jobs here in the U.S., although employer wouldn’t have endorsed it. For example, a government employee in the States usually must be at work at a certain and may not leave before a certain time. Once at work, they can do any personal things they want. They can even take a 3-hour lunch break if they want. They will never get fired. In private businesses, lots of employees today spend several hours out of the 8-hour schedule surfing Internet, which is equivalent to your coworkers’ reading newspaper. The difference, though, is that such an activity is not endorsed but tolerated by employers in the U.S. When I was doing indenpendent software consulting, I worked as a contractor. I usually had tons fo work to do in order to get paid big bucks. The permanent employees of my client whom I worked with usually didn’t have much to do. They goofed around a lot. Work efficiency is a big issue here in the States as well. I used to be very demanding on my team members (yes, I was a boss) and always calculated to the exact hour when I would expect them to finish a task. Needless to say, they were not happy and ineffecient. I have learned over the years that if I do less macro management, they would be happier and chances are they would be more productive. As for inefficiency seen at your barbershop in China, I think someday that would change. Just look at Taiwan. Such an efficiency won’t exist in a barbershop in Taiwan. The reason? Time means very little and doesn’t worth much to Chinese workers now. They might as well spend 14 hours a day in the barbershop. Mr. Zheng is wise enough to pay his employees by tasks instead of by hours.

    Disclosure – I am all for efficiency. I usually work 4.5 days a week, M through T and 1/2 days on Fridays. Efficiency is vital for being productive.

  19. Jay Antigua and Barbuda said,

    May 25, 2007 at 5:25 am

    well,I don’t think a person will be busy all the eight hours aroud.
    What you guys will do if there’s nothing to do during working hours?
    Staring at the computer blankly?

  20. China Law Blog United States said,

    May 25, 2007 at 8:07 am

    One of the things I am always telling my American clients doing business in China is that they need to realize that the American maxim that “time is money” does not hold true in China. Your post nicely reinforces that.

  21. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 26, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    M asks:

    why doesn’t Mr. Zheng reduce the number of workers?
    Do your workers also try to study during those hours that are not very busy?

    I think the problem is that in China 99% of all workers are full time. There are times (though few and far between) when the entire staff is busy. If Mr. Zheng were to trim the staff, he could only do it by firing some workers, not by shortening their hours. This is because if he shortened their hours he would probably also have to decrease their pay (otherwise, what’s the point?) If he decreased their pay, they would probably just quit. So in order to have enough staff when the shop is busy, he needs to keep all of the full time employees.

    As for studying during downtime, I have asked about this as well. My thinking was that if you know you are going to have 3 to 5 hours of downtime per day on the job 322 days per year there is an incredible potential for studying…possibly learn English, read the annals of Chinese history, memorize the telephone book? However, it still seems that most time is devoted to the newspaper, magazines, cell phone games, and general clowning around. When I asked one of my colleagues, he told me that most of the workers in the barbershop don’t like studying anyway (which is why they are working there instead of going to college, or high school for that matter). Simply put, they have already given up on studying and are committed to lives in the service industry.

  22. Benjamin Ross China said,

    May 27, 2007 at 12:03 am

    Bernard asks:

    On a similar line of questioning from the other readers, if you’re a small business owner in China, would there be an advantage to implementing a western style system of part time workers and job scheduling based on observed traffic flows for your business?

    In my opinion, there would absolutely be an advantage. Mr. Zheng told me that labor is his biggest expense, and obviously a lot of this labor is being wasted. The problem, however, I think is imbedded within the system. In the West, many people (espeically students) work part time jobs. In China, this is not as common. While it does happen occasionally, you are either fully indebted to your work (like our barbershop) or fully indebted to something else (such as school)…the two generally don’t mix. While it would make business sense for Mr. Zheng to employ a western style system of shift management, my guess is he would not be able to find the workers to do it.

  23. The China Expat » The Inefficiencies in the Chinese Working Class United States said,

    May 28, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    […] Anyway, he wrote a good introduction to the inefficiencies of many employees in China, shedding some insight into the “why” of a room full of hairdressers or waitresses standing around doing nothing. If you have ever walked into a Chinese restaurant or hair salon or clothing store or mall bathroom or any of a huge range of Chinese businesses during non-peak hours, you know what I am talking about. […]

  24. Jeremy China said,

    May 28, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    I don’t know, I think that there is likely a large untapped market for part time workers in China, although more likely at the professional level than at the service or retail level. I wrote a loooong post talking about this in response to this post. If you want to check it out, just click on my name for the direct link.

  25. LT China said,

    July 15, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    I think Mr. Zheng could probably do it, but inertia is hard to change.

    In a large department store, the scheduling would be a huge amount of overhead that seems in the end not worth it when you’re paying people the same anyway whether they work 6 or 12 hours. Only competition will change that, but then one comes back to employment and there simply are too many available low-cost workers.

    But thinking about Mr. Zheng, is he really THAT overstaffed? What would happen if he adjusted schedules, kept salaries the same, but gave people off hours from noon-2pm, dinner time, etc.

    First he’d have to schedule, who get’s the perk each day of not coming in until 2pm. If everyone came in at 1:55 pm, they probably wouldn’t have things prepped when customers come in. If people rotate, how many people can he give the perk to on a particular day, he’s got to have a core stylist, washer, and cleaner for the odd customer that comes in. Are daily customer patterns predictable after 2 pm also? What happens thru dinner hours and from say 9 pm to midnight? If he has typicall unpredictable rushes in those later hours, it’s pretty tough to run a core staff then and not be turning away customers. With tight margins, this would not be acceptable.

    Does he have THAT regular of a flow of customers that a schedule can be predicted and adjusted, do they capture the flow on a spreadsheet and consider demand peaks, and marketing promotions? Do they then market and drive business for slower parts of the day? Are simple things like the staff is reliable enough to make such tight adjustments in the schedule. Who would do this scheduling?

    You see where this is going, it’s a higher-level of management, but where’s he gonna learn it?

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