How much does a Chinese factory worker make?

One of the fun things about living in China, is that there are very few questions that are considered off-limits (less fun when they are asking you), so I make the most of it and dive right into the personal lives of complete strangers (much to my modest wife’s embarrassment).

One of the first questions I get when I start chatting with a stranger is about my salary, I think it’s more out of a curiosity of American life, than actually caring about how rich or poor I am. Through these exchanges the last few years I’ve managed to get a pretty good picture of how wages vary throughout China.

I remember being surprised at how eager students were in Longzhou (a tiny, middle of nowhere town) to get a part-time job that paid 3rmb/hour (~$.35) handing out fliers for China Mobile for a few hours in front of a supermarket. Jobs like that were hard to come by in Longzhou, and most of the students settled for something that was steadier, but might only pay 2rmb/hour (~$.23).

The students who headed to the big cities (Mostly Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan) didn’t fair much better over the summer. Even working in a mobile phone factory (placing the screen into the case) only paid 7rmb/hour (~$1), but at the end of the month the company took food and rent (for the tiny factory dorm) out of the paychecks, leaving students with only about 4rmb/hour (~$.47). After an entire summer of working 60 hours a week, one student had only saved a few hundred dollars (This is the student Celia mentioned here).

Many of them weren’t too excited about becoming teachers either, even though it is considered a good job in China. For most of them, it had been their parents’ idea. When asked they always pointed to the fact that it was a safe job (as a teacher you would have to work at it to get fired). The pay however for a rural middle school teacher is miserable. On average it’s about 1,500rmb/month (~$200), and they are required to be at the school 12 hours a day, 6 days a week to monitor the students’ studies.

This isn’t to say that this is typical of all jobs in China, I have a few students who have managed to avoid the assembly line and now make 2-3,000rmb/month (~$3-400) making sales on commission.

So it’s pretty strange to now be working in a hospital in a large city, where the salaries are much higher. I discovered, after hearing about a few luxury shopping sprees (one dr. bought a couple Rolexes, and another bought four Gucci bags), that some of the doctors in key positions are making well over 100,000rmb/year. Their income is a combination of salary (25%), gifts for performing operations (25%), and kickbacks for prescribing certain medications (50%).

All of this is to say that China is a land of growing inequality (already surpassing that found in the US). Deng Xiaoping (the leader after Mao) said, “To get rich is glorious,” and “Some should be allowed to get rich first.” It will be interesting to see what methods the gov’t uses over the next few years to try to convince the public to wait their turn.

update: New story from People’s Daily shows Average wage for migrant worker is 1,690rmb/month

Update Oct. 26, 2011 – Latest information shows that the highest minimum wage is in Guangdong province, and is 1,320RMB per month.

Update, April 5, 2012 – “Data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China showed that average income for urban residents was 1,998 yuan a month in 2011.” People’s Daily

23 responses to “How much does a Chinese factory worker make?”

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Which again raises the point that there is very little middle in the middle kingdom..?

    • Tom says:

      In some ways that is correct. There is talk of a “growing middle class” here, but it seems to be mostly talk. It seems that either you have guanxi or you don’t. Recently released data from China’s top universities showed that less than 1/5 of their students had come from Western China (which also has a few “rich” areas).
      The growing gap between rich and poor is both enormous and an enormous concern for China’s govt.
      There are still places where minimum wage is less than $125/month for factory labor.

  2. […] One of the fun things about living in China, is that there are very few questions that are considered off-limits (less fun when they are asking you), so I make the most of it and dive right into the personal … Continue reading → […]

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Yes, it is obvious in Beijing. I pay more for a coffee than I do here in UK but poverty is all around. Intelligent young BJ friends say “First some people will get rich, then the rest will follow” – typical propaganda. I don’t like to bargain in the market as I am so aware of inequalities – probably think I’m a stupid laowai! I notice huge changes in the ten years I have been visiting Beijing but the inequalities worry me. My job as a social worker was assisting disadvantaged British people but I operated under the legitimacy of “The Social Work Scotland Act of 1968”. This legal act guided my every day work. It’s OK for me to spout on about a small country like Scotland but as you say, China is vast and legislation passed in BJ is not acted upon in the Provinces. What is the Chinese saying – “The mountains are high and the emporer is far away”!

    • Tom says:

      That is such a popular quote. Perhaps it could be also adapted to “Heaven is high, and the emperor closes his eyes.” Right now there is a lot of talk of closing that gap between rich and poor, but I’ll believe it when I actually see something happen.

  4. Don Tai says:

    For villagers it is very common, even assumed, that you will need to give a kickback to the doctor, even if you have guanxi. Otherwise you might not get the right diagnosis and medicine, and the expensive visit to the doctor will be wasted. Alternately the doc writes you a prescription and you go to his pharmacy to fill it, at elevated prices. I have seen this first hand from relatives. Though this is known to be unethical and against the rules of the hospitals, this is life in China.

    Thanks for asking about wages. $0.50US/hr seems not much. I know that my relatives who work as migrant labourers always get ripped off by their bosses wherever they go in China.

    • Tom says:

      I’m going to include this in an eventual post about Chinese Medicine, but here it is anyway.
      In my hospital they prescribe a traditional medicine made of deer antlers, bird nests and shark fins…it costs around $4-5 per dose, the patient takes it 3x a day. I can’t imagine how much those doctors are making off of snake oil. I see patients leaving the hospital with big shopping bags of it, supposedly it can take up to a year to show its power, how convenient.

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    It’s obvious that corruption is the biggest problem for the Chinese government to overcome. It is endemic in Chinese life at all levels of society. Of course corruption exists in developed western countries but not to the same extent. Recently some members of the British Parliament have been jailed for fiddling their expense accounts and this had been a widespread habit of many years. I think the Chinese problem of “face” is at the root of the corruption problem and this is linked to widespread poor mental health. Stress takes a terrible toll on many people’s lives. Many people present a competent “face” to the world but internally are possibly at breaking point. Conformity is all. Corruption thrives in a climate of fear and stress.

    • Tom says:

      Good point, Western countries obviously still have corruption issues, but China’s railway minister is under investigation for siphoning hundreds of millions out of the high-speed train projects.

  6. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  7. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Tom, I am looking forward to your post on Chinese medicine.

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  12. […] be less than 1500rmb per month, something most Americans would find to be an impossible task, yet tens of millions of Chinese are trying to do just that. Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Just Add Water Rate […]

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  15. Anonymous says:

    how long does it take for them to make the shoes

  16. Curious in America says:

    Thank you for this information. Upon reading a USA article about the disparity of income for workers in factories in China that are apple suppliers making only 350-400 USD monthly I wondered if this was actually considered an average wage for a factory worker, and that comparable to cost of living, not nearly so harsh as the article indicated. Since my husband works 70 hrs a week consistently, I discounted that part of the article off hand. But your information confirmed to me that the journalist had an agenda against Apple.

  17. amber says:

    how much money people make on average in china ?

  18. Fred says:

    It is unproven that Deng actually ever made that quote.

  19. […] “Global Supply Chain” = Cheap Labour, as in ~$1.61/hour* versus the wages of $7.25/hour for an American. * Source […]

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