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24 Cents an Hour, 70 Hours a Week

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted May 23, 2007

Dear Reader:

As the editor of Orbus Intel, I do my best to give you an intimate knowledge not only of international markets but also of the people driving global growth. I also try hard to get to where the action is myself, taking several trips a year. But, as hard as I try, I can’t be everywhere at once. Luckily, I have a network of eyes and ears around the world.

One of my most trusted sources is Benjamin Ross, a longtime associate who works as a consumer anthropologist in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian. Fluent in Mandarin, Benjamin has conducted research for several multinational corporations involving migrant workers, cell phones, Internet cafés, and people with disabilities as they pertain to the Chinese market and its 11% annual growth.

Quite simply, Ben is down in the trenches of the new world economy.

But his corporate work isn’t all. Ben has taken the bold step of foregoing the charmed life of a foreigner for the 11-hour days of an average Chinese worker. He is in the middle of a month-long stint as a barbershop trainee, earning as much in a month as he would make in a day teaching English. In the meantime, he is gaining priceless insight into the foundations of the economy that will drive the business of the 21st century.

Shanghai vs. S&P

We welcome Ben’s insight to Orbus Intel. Today, he gives you a worker’s-eye-view of illegal immigration from China.



Sam Hopkins

24 Cents an Hour, 70 Hours a Week

by Benjamin Ross

You’ve all heard the stereotypes. Fifteen Chinese workers crammed into a small room in the back of the local Chinese eatery. They never show their faces. They never leave the kitchen. They don’t speak English. They don’t have green cards, and they certainly aren’t paying any taxes. This has caused quite a stir of late as the Bush administration looks to revise U.S. immigration policies. Some Americans think it’s about time we punished those who have illegally entered our country. Others feel that it’s just another act of xenophobia from an already over-paranoid administration. In a barbershop in Fuzhou, this is a hot topic as well, but for different reasons.

typical scene in a Fuzhou barbershop

Fuzhou is famous for its opulent banyan trees, its sugary sweet and sour pork, and its scorching hot summers. But more than anything Fuzhou is known for its legions of expatriates who emigrate to all corners of the world to wash dishes, cook food and scrub the floors of Chinese restaurants. If you have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant outside of China, chances are you have consumed food prepared by a Fuzhou cook.

Estimates suggest that as many as 40% of all Chinese abroad trace their roots back here to Fujian province. The vast majority of them immigrate with the proper documentation.

One of the barbers in my shop is especially interested in this topic. My first day on the job he asked me to give him an English name. I chose "Adam" because it sounded similar to his Chinese nickname.

After giving him a name and teaching him some basic English greetings at his request, I asked Adam why he was so interested in learning English.

"I have several relatives who have illegally immigrated to the United States. It is my dream to one day sneak into the United States as well," he answered.

Adam is uncharacteristically candid for a Chinese, but dreams such as his are not uncommon in the City of Banyan Trees.

Benjamin the barber (trainee, that is)

Would I really want to do this 70 hours a week for 24 cents an hour?

One of Many

Like most of Fuzhou’s immigrant population, Adam is not from Fuzhou city proper, but rather from an outlying town about two hours away. It is in these small coastal towns that locals have traditionally looked abroad to make their fortunes. My first year in China was spent in one of these towns.

Fuqing is a one-hour bus ride away from Fuzhou, and is not a desirable city to live in by Chinese standards. It is small, has poor public infrastructure and few job opportunities for people with college degrees. Yet, on a casual walk through Fuqing, one will see young women wearing designer clothes, old couples living in five-storey mansions, and men with long fingernails and hairy moles driving BMW’s. Another suspicious characteristic of Fuqing is the seemingly low number of people in their twenties and thirties.

In the words of my friend Xiao He, who grew up in Fuqing, "There are two options for young people in Fuqing. If you can make it into college, you can get a good job and move to a bigger city. If you don’t get into college, you just sneak into Japan to work for five or ten years" According to Xiao He, of his 41 high school classmates eleven are currently working in Japan, all illegally.

Each little town outside Fuzhou has a corresponding country where its locals have existing connections and where they tend to immigrate. While Fuqing’s expatriates can be found mostly in the kitchens of Tokyo’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinese restaurants are mostly staffed by immigrants from Lianjiang and Changle, two other small towns just outside of Fuzhou.

The reason people go abroad is simple: money. Most of them spend their entire time working (often up to 13 hours a day), have meals and housing provided by their employer, and rarely go out or spend any money. This lifestyle is strikingly similar to that of barbershop employees in China.

After I figured out the hourly wages of the little brothers and sisters in the barbershop, Adam asked me to calculate what he would be making if he worked in the United States instead of China.

Using the minimum wage of my home state of Missouri ($6.50 per hour), the same hours worked by Chinese barbershop employees would net $23,000 per year (before taxes, which likely aren’t paid anyway). In China that comes to around 14,500 RMB a month, a salary which can easily catapult a worker into the Fuzhou upper class. Looking at these figures, it’s not hard to understand why illegal immigration is such a draw.

This is exactly what Adam and many other Fuzhou people are thinking when they look for opportunities to go abroad. Either way, he will be working 70 hours a week and living in cramped quarters. It’s just a matter of whether he will be making 50 cents an hour or $6.50.

Which would you choose?

To learn more about his "barbershop experiment," visit Benjamin’s weblog, "A Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom," here: .