China's Uneven Labor Revolution

Factory conditions in the People's Republic may be improving -- but service workers are getting left behind.

GetWillLiPing-615.jpgThe Salvadors' team in front of the cafe, Kunming, China (Colin Flahive)

Had Li Ping been working anywhere else, she probably would be dead.

Three months ago, the 17-year-old had found work as a waitress at Salvador's, a Western café and restaurant in Kunming, China. Situated in a crowded alleyway known to most Kunming residents as "Foreigner's Street," Salvador's serves up an unlikely assortment of milkshakes, breakfast burritos, chickpea patties, and craft beers. And while its menu is tailored to the foreign palate (Mexican food, unsurprisingly, remains a rarity in China), Salvador's does manage to draw local patrons as well. ("A lot of foreigners here," writes one reviewer on, the Chinese version of Yelp, "but the ice cream is good.")

Most Chinese consider Kunming a pleasant, if provincial, third-tier city. The tiny village where Li Ping comes from, on the other hand, hardly makes the map. Called Dalubian Cun -- literally translated, "the small village by the side of the big road" -- Li Ping's hometown lies 500 km southwest of Kunming in the rural prefecture of Lincang. Dalubian is a bumpy two-and-a-half hour ride from the nearest main road, which itself lies an hour-and-a-half from Yunxian, a backwater "town" of 400,000 just over the hills from the Mekong River. The trip to Kunming requires a grueling 10 hours.

Though it's not uncommon for residents of villages like Dalubian to seek work in nearby cities, it's unlikely that Li Ping would have learned of Salvador's were it not for A Li, another Dalubian resident and a manager of the cafe.

A Li became one of Salvador's first employees when Americans Kris Ariel and Colin Flahive opened the restaurant in 2003. At the time, Ariel and Flahive were living in Dali, a picturesque tourist hub four hours west of Kunming. A couple of years earlier, Ariel had taken a job managing a small eatery there called Sunshine Café, but when the 2002 SARS epidemic brought business to a halt, Kris and Colin decided to strike out on their own.

The duo moved their new café to Kunming in 2004, in the process bringing on two new partners, Josh Pollock and Okano Naoko. Six months later, A Li moved with them. Before long, she'd recruited friends from back home to join the growing staff. Today, Salvador's employs 22 workers -- 11 of them from Dalubian.

Li Ping had been with Salvador's for just eight months when she started to feel sick. At first, the symptoms seemed minor -- nausea, fatigue -- but within days Li Ping felt too sick to work. When she visited a local hospital, a doctor diagnosed her with renal failure.

"They told her, 'There's nothing we can do,' " Flahive says. "What they meant was, 'There's nothing that you can afford."

At 17, Li Ping had been too young to enroll in Salvador's health insurance plan. As a result, her only hope was to make the daylong trip back to Lincang; there, she could take advantage of China's rural healthcare system, which reimburses around 60 percent of the cost of (basic) procedures. Arriving in Lincang, Li Ping expected to travel directly to the local hospital. Instead, when her parents met her at the bus stop, the three of them walked home through pouring rain up to her village.

"Her family had decided to give up treatment," Flahive explains. "For them, the debt associated with it would have been a death sentence. They didn't know what to do."

* * *

China isn't the sort of place that evokes images of idyllic working conditions.

In fact, when most Americans think about Chinese labor practices -- to the extent that they think about Chinese labor practices at all -- they tend to think of companies like Foxconn, the Taiwanese conglomerate best known as the manufacturer of iPhones and iPads. 

China isn't the sort of place that evokes images of idyllic working conditions.

In January 2012, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg published a searing expose of working conditions at Foxconn, describing tenement-like dorms, forced overtime, and lethal factory explosions. In December, just under a year later, Duhigg and colleague Keith Bradsher revisited conditions at the manufacturer , noting improvements in working hours and stronger safeguards against workplace accidents.

The vast majority of Chinese citizens, however, don't work in places like Foxconn. According to China's Ministry of Human Resources, in 2011, the country's manufacturing sector employed just 29 percent of workers; the service sector, by comparison, accounted for 36 percent of employment nationwide. Few Chinese service workers are seeing conditions improve.

"Over the past three years, wages in factories have gone up," Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for the Hong Kong-based labor rights group China Labour Bulletin, said. "But workers in shops and restaurants have been left behind."

Like manufacturing workers, restaurant, hotel, and retail employees frequently work long hours for low pay. In 1994, China instituted a national minimum wage designed to cover workers' basic living expenses. But over the past two decades, minimum wages -- which vary by province -- have been outpaced by inflation that has, at times, surpassed 7 percent. Though China's slowing economy has cooled rising prices, in third-tier cities like Kunming, minimum wages still barely exceed 4 or 5 American dollars a day.

Many service workers would be lucky to make that. According to Crothall, enforcement of labor laws -- particularly in rural areas and lower-tier cities -- remains "extremely lax to non-existent." In an interview, Eileen Otis, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon whose research focuses on the Chinese service sector, said that many restaurant workers are denied basic benefits like housing. 

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Eli Bildner is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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