July 22, 2013, by Tony Hong

Precarious employment in China through shopping mall employees

By Jennifer Baik,

Studying Management at the University of Auchland, New Zealand.

I have often heard of China’s extensive human capital in the context of subcontracted factory labour, but to a lesser extent in the service and industry sectors. Based on what I have eye-witnessed, it seems that the service sector is supported by a large human capital pool as well. As a tourist, I have been surprised at the number of waiters and waitresses waiting for customers at restaurants and stores. I first ran into them at the entrance, to see that they are waiting to serve me as soon as I sat down on a table; not to mention that there are few others waiting at the till. Yet the price I got charged for their customer service is a lot cheaper than other countries I have been to, including developing nations.

This inevitably brings me back to the concept of precarious workers. According to Kalleberg (2009), precarious employment refers to a form of work that is insecure and temporary in nature, such as part-time and contract jobs. Even in the case of full-time jobs, they can be considered precarious depending on the level of pay, the type of job they carry out, and uncertain job trajectory in the future. Workers under this category are vulnerable to low pay and virtually non-existent social and legal protection, hence the word precariousness. In addition to this, precarious workers are often unprotected by state labour law and regulations, rendering concepts like paid annual leave and insurance unheard of. While reasons for precarious employment are multi-faceted, it came to attention in the 1970s with the rise of economic liberalisation and globalisation (Kalleberg, 2009). This trend is echoed in China’s case with market liberalisation and economic development since the 1980s (Zhou, 2013).  

Although Chinese precarious employment has been explained in the context of global factories, many service industry workers I came across in China can be said to be precarious workers under the aforementioned definition. A lot of them appear to be young workers who work late hours, waiting for customers to leave the shopping mall at 11PM. They also face low pay, with dim prospects for future. Gao Haitao, who once worked at a WalMart store and is now at the forefront of employment strikes against the company, exemplifies many workers I have come across during my stay in China. China’s scale of human capital in the retail industry was something I have not witnessed before. As a foreigner, retail industry employees are easier to spot than global factory workers in China, rendering the concept of precarious workers more relevant in China.

Nevertheless, this does mean that workers are without hope. The rise of precarious workers has brought about the 2008 Labour Contract Law. The law introduces compulsory written contracts for workers and encourages permanent employment supported by social security benefits, rather than temporary contract. The law has been met with opposition from private investors who wanted to keep labour cost as low as possible, but has been finalised (Zhou, 2013).

As it has only been five years since the law’s reception, evaluation may be premature and results are mixed (Zhou, 2013). Some argue it is associated with better social security (e.g. insurance) and protection of worker rights (Li, 2011). However, when I pass by countless stores at shopping malls, it is not hard to notice the number of shopkeepers and waiters who have been standing there all day. In light of this, precariousness is likely to still persist in 2013. However, rather than disregarding the law as ineffective, it can still be an important starting point in dealing with precarious employment in China, including those in the retailer industry.


Anonymous (2008, September 22). Promising Wal-Mart Trade Union Chair Resigns Over Collective Contract Negotiations ­ Article ­ China Labor News Translations. Retrieved July 4, 2013, from http://www.clntranslations.org/article/34/promising-wal-mart-trade-union-chair-resigns-over-collective-contract-negotiations

Kalleberg, A. L., & Hewison, K. (2013). Precarious work and the challenge for Asia. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(3), 271-288.

Li, X., & Freeman, R. B. (2012). How Does China’s New Labor Contract Law Affect Floating Workers?. NBER Working Paper, February.

Zhou, Y. (2013). The State of Precarious Work in China. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(3), 354-372.

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