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White-collar workers want to be "last one out" in China
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09:44, January 18, 2009

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As 2008 drew to an end, the management at China HYDAC Technology (Shanghai) Ltd. put up a notice reminding staff who had vacation time pending to submit their holiday leave plans.

Yu Cheng, a white-collar employee who joined the German-funded business here years ago, decided to waive his vacation time and also stay late on many workdays.

"I like vacations, but I don't want to risk taking a holiday during such uncertain times," he said.

As the global recession deepens, many white-collar workers herein the country's eastern financial hub have a similar concern: that taking a vacation could lead to losing their jobs.

China HYDAC, an electronic device producer, has been seriously affected by the spreading financial crisis. Since the fourth quarter of 2007, its position has gone from bad to worse. Managers hinted that year-end bonuses might fall short of those promised for 2008.

Yu and his colleagues dared not slack off. Few arrived late, and many tried to be last to leave.

"We all want to be the one to 'turn off the lights' at night," he said.

The story is the same for many urban white-collar workers in China now: they're putting in overtime to reduce the risk of being laid off.


Certainly, workers are worried. But not everyone agrees that these job fears amount to a collective psychological crisis.

In October, the World Health Organization warned that the global financial crisis might lead to worsening mental health, with fear of job loss becoming the biggest source of psychological pressure for China's white-collar workers.

And according to the 2008 Finding Report on Chinese Enterprise Employee Professional Mental Health Management, released Nov. 20 at the 6th China Employee Assistance Program, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said the economic crisis had greatly affected their mental state. Nearly 10 percent respondents said they felt like they were "on thorns" over the possibility of losing their jobs.

Not everyone in the mental health field thinks things are so bad. Zhao Yinfen of the Shanghai S&M Psych Counseling and Clinic, a hotline, said: "There are not so many people obviously suffering from excessive phobias over the economic crisis."

Zhao's service offered counseling to white-collar workers in the city in recent months. But according to Zhao, the hotline hadn't found that many people were overly concerned about losing their paychecks. Few of their patients sought counseling exclusively for job fears.


Two months ago, the Shanghai Human Resources Consulting Association (SHRCA) surveyed 7,000 foreign-funded enterprises in the city and found that these businesses cut their staff by less than 0.8 percent. Most of the lost jobs were in electronic communications, financial consulting, trade and cargo transport machinery.

However, white-collar workers were less liable to look for better jobs. Instead, they were more concerned with making sure they kept their current positions.

"What will you do if a job-hopping opportunity is put in front of you?" asked a survey by recruiting site 51job.com. More than 80percent of the 500 white-collar respondents said they would stay put, rather than move for a more prestigious job or higher salary. Similar surveys in previous years showed more than half of respondents would move.

On Jan. 6, the SHRCA promulgated the 2008 White Paper on the Shanghai Human Resources Service Industry. It said that the human resources service sector would be affected by the global financial crisis, although the city had not yet seen large-scale job losses.

The impact was expected to be most notable from February to July, when more people might lose jobs, fewer posts would be offered and labor disputes were likely to rise subsequently.

The white paper also predicted hiring would pick up in the second half.

SHRCA president Gu Jiadong said the total workforce of the city's foreign-funded enterprises increased 13.4 percent year-on-year in 2008. Gu said the total would decline 0.5 percent in the first half and rebound 5.3 percent in the second half.

In comparison, employment in the city's state-owned enterprises fell 2 percent in 2008. The total might rise 2.5 percent in the first half and 1.8 percent in the second half.

Yu Cheng and white-collar workers like him don't want to be among the layoff statistics. They see more than 6 million college graduates looking for their own "rice bowls" and more overseas Chinese students and scholars seeking jobs in China as the crisis spreads.

"If I can keep my job, I don't mind turning off the lights at night," Yu said.


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