The Penalties of Quitting a Hairstyling Job in China, and Restrictions on the Free Movement of Labor
Several days ago I received a WeChat voice message from Li Wen Zhong. “Ben, you’re going to have a new roommate. I hope that’s ok.” I have been living in Li Wen Zhong’s salon’s dormitory since I arrived in Fuzhou this past December. Li gave me my own room, but told me after Chinese New Year, I may have to share my space with another stylist. Li (like most salon owners in Fuzhou) has been trying to increase his labor force, and my first assumption was that he had found a new stylist with whom I would share my room. Instead, my new roommate is a stylist named Shengxi, who has been working in a salon in Jingfeng, a small town near the Fuzhou airport. He had arrived in Fuzhou at the conclusion of Spring Festival for some job training at the Red Sun Academy (Li’s school). Since the Red Sun’s student dormitory is currently rented to a third party (this is low season for students), Li allowed Sheng Xi to stay in his dormitory.
While we were getting acquainted in our shared dorm room, Sheng Xi told me his plan was to remain in Fuzhou until April, studying at the Red Sun. He also was going to consider looking into job opportunities in Fuzhou. When I asked how his job search had progressed thus far, he had this reply:
Looking for a job here in China isn’t as easy as it is in the US. In the US, you can just work for a few days, and if you don’t like it, you can quit. You still get paid for two days work. But in China, as a hairstylist, you usually don’t get paid until a month and a half after you start. Say you start working on March 1. Your first payment will be on April 15, and that will be for all the work from the month of March. If you quit before April 15, you won’t get paid at all. So you have to be very careful in choosing where you work. If you chose a bad job and need to quit, you may end up working for free. The thing is, none of this is based on a contract. So if the boss doesn’t want to pay you, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Later in our conversation, Shengxi mentioned returning to his salon in Jingfeng. This had me puzzled about his actual job status. Was he still employed by the salon in Jingfeng? Or not? I asked him if he had quit, and he told me:
Well, I wouldn’t say I quit. I told my boss I want to go study in Fuzhou, and I won’t be back until April. He agreed, but he put a hold on my salary: My pay from 2/1 to 2/15, I won’t get paid until I get back, and if I don’t come back, he’ll keep that money. There’s also the deposit. At my job, it was 1,500 RMB. Each of the first three months I worked, my boss would take 500 RMB out of my pay. Then once I work for a year, the money is returned to me. It’s an incentive to stick around. This is pretty common practice in most salons.
Shengxi’s predicament is as such: There’s a good chance he will find a more appealing job in Fuzhou than his current employment in Jingfeng. However, the job would have to be appealing enough to counterbalance the sacrifice of the 1,500 RMB deposit, plus the earnings from 2/1 to 2/15. It’s important to note that this time period, the weeks leading up to Spring Festival, is THE busiest time of the year for stylists, and thus the time when incomes (which are based on commission) are highest.
The hairstyling industry in Fuzhou is currently experiencing a glut of salons and a shortage of stylists to work in them. In theory, this should provide power to the workers, (the stylists), relative to the salon owners. One clear benefit to the workforce is that the unemployment level of hairstylists in Fujian is effectively 0%. Due to the labor shortage, it’s virtually impossible for a stylist to be jobless, unless it’s out of his own volition. In theory, this should make bouncing from job to job in search of an optimal employment situation more appealing, since there is little fear of unemployment. A stylist I spoke with yesterday told me that he had started his own salon (and failed) multiple times, and after each attempt he returned to the salon at which he’d previously been employed, no questions asked.
However, as Sheng Xi’s situation reveals, salons counteract the potential for movement via strict financial penalties which dis-incentivize their labor from freely moving from salon to salon in search of optimal employment.
This brings up an interesting question, and something I plan to probe deeper into in my meetings with salon owners: the terms of employment. In the world of hairstyling, there exists a delicate balance of power between the boss and his labor force. Back in the 90’s and 00’s when labor was abundant, power rested almost entirely in the hands of the boss. It was in this environment that assistants (apprentices) would often pay the boss of a salon (in both money and labor) in exchange for their training. These days the tables are turned. It is now the bosses who pay their assistants, in addition to offering them free training. As the supply of labor evaporates, so does the power of the boss, relative to his employees. These terms of employment and restrictions on quitting may represent one of the final throngs of power that boss still has over worker in the rapidly changing hairstyling industry.
Hopefully Shengxi will find an opportunity in Fuzhou which will allow him to quit his job in Jingfeng, and compensate for his financial penalty incurred. From our latest conversations, he does not sound optimistic. But at least he won’t be unemployed.