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Four Jobs That Highlight China’s Inefficiency

Yesterday we started to look very generally at China’s efficiency problems. Today I would like to introduce you to a few of the most pointless jobs in China that highlight the practices inspired by low wages.

Bus Line Monitor

I see these people standing at each of the bus stops on my way to work each morning. They stand around with their yellow or red arm bands and watch the masses cram in to buses. While their title might imply that these people are in some way responsible for making sure getting on the bus is an orderly process, I have yet to see them do anything to improve the situation.

Receipt Stamper

A common sight throughout China, the receipt stamper is the bored looking man or woman standing at the exit of every supermarket. At first I assumed that they were there to check and make sure I hadn’t tossed any extra items into my bag, but realized that they really didn’t care what I had bought. In many places the store doesn’t even care if you get your receipt stamped or not, I think it is another superfluous step for making a regular receipt an official one. Here in Nanjing it seems to be a method for validating your parking, but it sure seems like something that could be easily handled by the cashier.

Ticket Takers and Ticket Sellers

Even at the most boring of museums in China (or any place that requires a ticket) they have made the work of one person, selling and taking tickets, into two separate jobs. Often there are 4 or 5 people in the sales office, but only one person is actually doing any work, the others are usually drinking tea or napping (the office usually has a cot or comfortable chairs for this purpose).

Perhaps the most perplexing example of this I’ve seen was in Chengdu at the Sichuan Museum. The museum was free to enter but it employed 3 people to hand out tickets, and two more to check them.

Train Crossing Guards

I’ve seen this in small towns throughout China, manual crossing barriers. Usually it is two men who spend the day napping in front of the train crossing office. When a train is coming someone calls them and tells them to lower the gate. At that point the men stop traffic and move the barriers into place and wait for the train to pass. It may be hard to believe but this system was still being used in Beijing in 2006, and is still used throughout the country.

These are just a few examples of the dozens of extra workers throughout China. The reasoning behind this I think are two-fold: 1) Labor is cheap, and 2) Low unemployment is good for stability (as I mentioned before the gov’t loves stability).


28 Comments

  1. And there is “doormen” everywhere, at any residence, institution, they do not do anything. They do not ask you anything, do not reply if you have questions…

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    A Chinese friend of mine recently phoned me from Canada where he has just commenced studying for an MBA. He was laughing as he said to me “Here in Canada they have all these old people in their 40’s and 50’s working as waiters and waitresses! In China we have beautiful young people doing this job!”.

  3. Japan has–or had when I lived there–such employees. My favorites were the white-gloved, bowing escalator girls who stood at the bottom and the top of each escalator greeting department store customers. I suspect that such employees are a manifestation of Confucian economics: a kind of make-work. This suspicion is supported by Japan’s exemplary Gini numbers.

    BTW, Wal-Mart in America has receipt stampers. I suspect that Wal-Mart is not a Confucian operation, though I have no proof of that, either.

    • Tom says:

      I touched on this idea of service and extra employees in yesterdays post. I wonder which came first, cheap employees or this expectation.
      I am not familiar with Walmart’s receipt stampers, but their greeters are a good example of made up jobs.

  4. NiubiCowboy says:

    Another type of useless employee is the elevator operator. In my friend’s much taller apartment building there was a girl whose job it was to sit on a stool in the elevator for 10 hours and press the right button for passengers whenever they got on.

  5. Chopstik says:

    I’m reminded of someone I know and the best way I heard his job described was someone in HR (for lack of a better description) whose entire role was to generate guanxi 关系 with other departments for his company. Essentially, his days were spent hanging out with others drinking tea (or alcohol) and just talking with others to establish relationships. As I thought at the time, must be nice…

  6. Michael says:

    Another job I feel is superfluous is the weighing counter they have at the supermarkets. I think I’ve been to other countries where you had to have your fruit and veg weighed before going to the checkout, but when I was younger I used to work on a checkout and we had to weigh all the fruit and veg ourselves. It’s especially annoying in China having these weighing stations because of the much detested queuing habits (or lack thereof) of many Chinese people. And then after the weighing station you’ve got to queue again for the checkout.

  7. Tim says:

    How about the “ticket collectors/checkers” at the exit to train stations. What exactly is their purpose? Generally speaking, they collect or view maybe 10-20% of all the tickets passing by them. Why? To make sure you got off at the right stop? Isn’t that the job of the workers ON the train?

    Or how about the workers who view the security monitors for x-ray machines at places like train stations, subway stations, etc.? Half the time they are A) sleeping or B) not there. The other half of the time they look like they are in a trance (I would be two if I had to stare at the insides of a million bags every day). During the Olympics, when they first implemented x-ray machines in Beijing subways, I was able to just walk past the x-ray machine on multiple occasions. No one cared, no one stopped me. Even now, if you have a big bag that looks heavy to them, they won’t make you put it through the machine. Those jobs are “for show” to make people feel secure. Yikes.

    In many ways, China is very efficient and/or can implement large scale changes/projects with unbelievable speed, but then you see other things that just befuddle the mind. Your final point about stability is the crux of the matter in my opinion. The gov’t could care less about being inefficient as long as it keeps people happy enough to not complain about bigger issues. Good stuff.

    • hooey says:

      I think they might also have some regulations regarding how much people (at least) you should hire.

      Anyway, as for the x-ray on the metro, that’s obvious why they have them everywhere – because the security equipment is sold by Hu Jintao’s son. That’s just pure corruption.

      I think there can be good explanations for other unnecessary jobs, too.

  8. […] Yesterday we started to look very generally at China’s efficiency problems. Today I would like to introduce you to a few of the most pointless jobs in China that highlight the practices inspired by low wages. Bus Line Monitor I … Continue reading → […]

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  10. Sasha says:

    I guess it’s one way to put people in jobs and lower the un-employment rate even if they do seem the most pointless of jobs. Now the stamping of your receipts at the supermarket is just down right annoying though! When I’m done with my shopping I want to be out of these as quick as possible!!!

  11. ZK says:

    The most useless job I have seen is the security guards in metro stations who supposedly “保持安全.” It’s not their fault their job is pointless, it’s the masses of metro riders who just walk past them and in some cases almost take the guards’ arms out of their sockets when they basically walk through the gesturing guard. Nonetheless, they have 3-4 guards at the baggage screening stations saying to maintain safety and futilely gesturing to the X-ray machine.

    • Tom says:

      In the Shanghai metro yesterday I saw that there were people responsible for checking if the subway doors were clear…They looked so bored and disappointed.

  12. Alphonse says:

    At the end is a job and there is no Inefficiency , its an economic policy to keep the unemployment numbers low .

    • Tom says:

      But paying people to do nothing isn’t efficient…in any economic system. This is part of why communism failed in China and the Soviet Union, employing everyone is a huge burden on the state…now in China it is a burden on the businesses.

  13. The trouble with the employment vs. efficiency debate is that we could argue it both ways. In an idle moment, I toyed around with imaginary defences for either position (i.e. employment in inefficient manpower vs. unemployment in efficient manpower) and I find both positions will pass defensibility criteria. This being the case (even in my own head), there then has to be another aspect to the debate – which I reckon falls on what actually employment is meant for the state. In other countries, it might well be more skewed towards tax revenue. In China, I should reckon employment (even in inefficient jobs) is more skewed towards maintaining social and public order. After all, in a country of 1,300 million souls, even a 1% jobless rate is 130 million jobless!

  14. johhny says:

    a high school dropout can probably point out all those “inefficiencies” so i dont think any capable manager is going to overlook these obvious cases. let me tell u yes it is a thing with confucian societies. there is a certain “value” associated with person to person contact. its that sense of social harmony and happiness thru working. some posters have also commented on how it is similar in japan as well. in japan there are factories that are fully automated with robotics and only a few supervisors, they still hire ppl to just stand at the door and greet you. another reason why ppl in japan works so hard is because of the amalgamation of work and play, unlike in the west where it is neatly defined.

    if u were working for the government, would u rather hire ppl at min wage to do “redundant” jobs or have them sit at home and collect welfare and food stamps? apparently in the US its the latter.

    • Chopstik says:

      Please correct me if I’m wrong but are you suggesting that these “inefficiencies” in China are a result of Confucianism? Or, phrased another way, another example of cultural relativism (the same argument used by the authorities to argue that China does not want any form of democratic standard because Chinese don’t like democracy – it is an imported Western standard)?

      I won’t dispute that people prefer human to human contact versus with machines, but I’m not really sure that the inefficient jobs listed in this post and comments are really the kind of human contact you’re intending to reference. In short, these inefficiencies are, as others (notably thenakedlistener) have noted, the result of an authoritarian government that seeks to address potential causes of social instability (e.g. open revolution) by creating fake jobs to give people something to do other than dream up ways of making their lives better without the government. And yes, I realize that is a harsh view and perhaps somewhat extreme but the point remains the same. Social harmonization with the understanding that people with content bellies are less likely to rebel and therefore are more easily controlled.

  15. soaringdragons says:

    What foreign residents in China see as “unproductive” or “non-essential” work, the Chinese themselves might see as essential, even if only in terms of helping the aged or the unemployable find “work.” If this is the motivation, then it seems more benevolent than other practices to artificially swell the ranks of the employed, including feather bedding that has occured in many nations, including those of the West.

    Unlike in certain cities in east China, here in Kunming we don’t yet have such “make work jobs” as bus line monitors to maintain order and keep people from crushing each other as they get on city buses, but we should! Occasionally gangs of pick-pockets will push people boarding the bus until they’re squeezed so tight they can’t move, then their compatriots easily steal wallets and valuables. Maybe if the bus “monitors” wield those long white truncheons in the same way train station guards do in order to bop unruly passengers on the head who are pushing and hopping barriers to board trains, the bus monitors will be earning their keep and doing everyone a service.

    We do have supermarket receipt stampers who, as you say, are everywhere in China. I can only surmise as to why they stamp the receipts all day: Someone buys fifty dollars worth of goods, takes his purchases and unstamped receipt outside and throws the goods in his car and then takes the empty sacks back into the store and fills them up again with the exact same goods and walks out the door showing the unstamped receipt to anyone who asks. This might sound ridiculous at first blush, but thieves in China, as everywhere, are extremely creative, though I would think that in terms of contributing to the GDP they rank near the bottom in efficiency.

    One of the more tiring jobs I used to wonder at was the long hours young women had to (and still do) stand at the doors of restaurants and greet customers who come to dine. If it were a career extending beyond youth it would mean varicose veins and other leg problems, but since it isn’t long term it just means extreme boredom and fatigue. Whether or not this kind of job has an efficiency quotient, I’m not sure.

    Of another sort of work, old women would sweep the streets and old couples would sell bicycle parking stubs in the day and sleep at night in barred enclosures with the bicycles in residential compounds. It was a way for the aged and unemployable with very limited prospects to gain a livelihood. But these jobs are disappearing rapidly as water trucks and mechanized street sweepers clean city streets and cadres of young men in pressed uniforms make the rounds to protect the homes and vehicles of city residents.

    Reading news stories over the weekend I came across something that made me think that there might be many employed individuals in America who are simply “making work.” Two young people ostensibly “working” as reporters for the New York Post, Rebecca and C.J. (last names withheld to protect them from embarrassment) nonchalantly misuse the English language–the primary tool of their trade–with the same wild abandon as Chinese students, but Chinese have the excuse that English is not their native language.

    B’klyn tyke mowed down By REBECCA HARSHBARGER and C.J. SULLIVAN (capital letters not mine)

    “A 5-year-old boy…was mowed down…by a meat-delivery truck…”

    Vain and feckless is the only way to describe Rebecca and C.J.’s use of the term “mowed down.” You can’t mow down a single tyke. The object of the verb mow down is usually a large number of something, anything, like soldiers charging your position or blades of grass standing between you and a televised football game or even bowling pins. Mowing down is intentional, and often indiscriminate, not accidental. The only way the “tyke” could have been mowed down was if he and a half-dozen of his buddies were blocking the road with fixed bayonets, then you could say the truck mowed them down.

    In addition, such “reporting” is both brazen and reckless, because how would you feel if you were the parents of the child and read that your baby was “mowed down”? I think Rebecca and C.J. should be sent over to Wal-Mart to stamp shopping receipts for the rest of the day.

  16. Anonymous says:

    It’s annoying, for sure, when I’m at the Carrefour or whatever supermarket, and most of the time, I’m being blocked and pushed around by the employees… but it’s true, there are way too many people doing a job that a single person could do. My personal favorite, in Shanghai, are the subway baggage check officials. So many people, including me, depending on how big my bag is, just ignore them and walk through without being checked. Initially, about a year ago, when they were in place, they would insist on checking each and every luggage piece… but at this point, they’ve just given up. They wave an arm, then… whatever….

  17. Anonymous says:

    Was replying to the actual article, then read some of the comments (I’m the guy that posted the last hazy post)… before anyone makes any judgements about how safe China is, or about how uncaring the Chinese are… let me tell you,… Today is Halloween, so I took my wife’s makeup and smeared my face up and ripped up some old clothes and wore them to my job…. I had several people ask me if I needed help! 🙂 I told them it was Halloween, and they laughed very embarrassed, and I gave them candy…. Chinese people want to care….

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