The aging face of what we think of when we think of Chinese labor.

Below, a photo of a metal sorter in Jiangsu Province, China. To those who don’t recognize what she’s doing, it may look like she’s sorting garbage. To those who do, they know that she’s a semi-skilled laborer who can distinguish different types of metal by sight and feel. That job description doesn’t generate much respect in China, or outside of it. Eight years ago, when I first started encountering workers like her, she was paid like it: between RMB 600 and RMB 800 per month (US$73 to US$97 by the 2002 fixed exchange rate). She was also younger: most of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of women engaged in this type of metal sorting were under the age of 30, unmarried, uneducated, and relatively local to the factories where they worked.

Over the last several weeks I have been having a new, intense encounter with these metal sorters, and much has changed. The factories where they worked, once filled with the happy gossip of younger women, are now quiet, the sole territory of women in their late thirties and older, many of whom have remained single. Young women, the sorts who, ten years ago, would have flocked to these factories, are now migrating to the cities in hope of better jobs, and better lives. And so, in the absence of new laborers to bolster their ranks, China’s semi-skilled metal sorters have become highly sought. Wages, once so low that they could only be justified as decent in comparison to a farmer’s i ncome, have risen to levels that – ten years ago – none of these women could expect. In this factory, wages have risen by 20%, annually, for the last couple of years, and now average in excess of RMB 3000/month (US$441/month) – exceeding what most Chinese college graduates can reasonably expect to earn after graduation.

It won’t last, though. The employers of China’s metal sorters, panicked at high wages, are investing in efficiency and automation designed to eliminate RMB 3000/month metal sorters. In a few years, there’ll be fewer Chinese metal sorting jobs, and – presumably – lower wages in the field. At least, that’s how it looks right now. Then again, eight years ago nobody was predicting the current bottleneck – everyone just assumed that there’d be plenty of cheap labor flowing from the countryside, into scrap yards, for years to come. I won’t hazard a guess as to where all of this is going. But it sure doesn’t feel stable – it sure isn’t the China that metal industry leaders told me I’d be watching in 2010. It feels much more unstable.

6 thoughts on “The aging face of what we think of when we think of Chinese labor.

  1. this story, (and the larger subject implied by the post’s title), is so poignant. my favorite people in shanghai are construction workers, probably because i have done that work in my life, and street sweepers. it is just so amazing the life they lead, the way they live, eat, wash their clothes, and of course, work. so many of them are in their forties. if sacrifice is what creates greatness, these people are the ones doing it.

  2. There are more manufacturing companies and more assembly lines jobs available in China than ten years ago. Since birth control, espicialy around the rual areas, have limited the number of young and able bodies that is require to work long hours for months. My cousin, an Engineer, helps on the factory floor packing up things that he help design because of labor shortage.

  3. Are you seeing consolidation in the sector as well? I wonder how long it’ll be before we start seeing Chinese scrap exported elsewhere because it’s cheaper to process there…

  4. Duncan – There is some consolidation in the sector, though most of the consolidation is a result of government directive. And, it’s worth noting, the industry is still highly fragmented at the small and medium scale level.

    There’s some scrap export happening, already, but I don’t think there’s any threat of that becoming a common phenomenon in the near future. Scrap is now viewed as a strategic resource among key policy-makers, and that basically shuts the door on any possible export industry.

  5. As a Shanghai Citizen, I’ve never thinked about where the scraps go and how they are being recycled. The government advocates waste sorting 5 years ago in the neighborhood where I live, but I never seen anyone put the trash in the right waste bin. You see waste bin in different colors by the street, but how many people really look at the signs before they littering.
    Another topic on the lack of young labors in countryside. I once seen an documentary recording the lives in the rural areas in China, only old people and children are left home. Most young people went to city to earn money. I used to wonder why they can’t earn money at their hometown. But after my living in the western China for about 4 months, I realized those places are like Shanghai 20 years ago. In fact, the industrial development is so immature that young educated people feel useless in those undeveloped are. I’m not gonna say anything against the government at this blog, to risking such a good blog being blocked like facebook or twitter.

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