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More stories about Sophie and Chinese labor

I wasn’t trying to be pejorative in my last post when I said that in China/Hong Kong there are five people doing the job one American would typically do. I didn’t mean that the five Chinese workers necessarily did no better than the one American worker, it was more a statement about how workers are allocated. At our hotel in China, for instance, there was a floor monitor, whose main job it seemed, was to press the button for the elevator. Maybe she also did other tasks I didn’t notice, but she could always be relied on to hit that elevator button. In restaurants, as well, servers were everywhere, seemingly one server per table.

On the main street in Nanchang, there were perhaps 200 people standing around with handwritten cardboard signs. I guessed maybe they were unemployed and looking for work. It turns out they actually were working, but I didn’t realize it. Their job was to stand on the corner all day with a sign saying that they will buy used cell phones. I guess they buy them cheap and then resell them to someone else for more money. Unfortunately for them, I saw perhaps 3 cell phones get sold in my week wandering up and down that street. It was the most competitive market I’ve ever seen. They must have been earning what they thought was a fair wage, though, or they wouldn’t have been out there.

I thought I had observed the most extreme case of excess labor when I went to buy a can of formula for my daughter Sophie in a large grocery store in Nanchang. As I searched the aisle for the exact type of formula she had been using in her orphanage, four young woman very eagerly attempted to help me. At first I thought they were just shoppers trying to aid me. Eventually (they didn’t speak English and I knew about 50 words of Mandarin) I realized they were working. Four of them huddled around me for roughly 10 minutes before I finally purchased $4 worth of formula. It made absolutely no sense to me.

Only later, back at the hotel, did my Chinese guide explain what was going on. (If you want, pause here before reading here and see if you can figure it out — I couldn’t).

The answer: these women weren’t employees of the grocery store, they were hired by rival formula companies to try to direct customers to their particular brand of formula! Which explains why they were all so cheerfully and persistently suggesting so many different kinds of formula to me…the store didn’t care what kind of formula I bought. A sale was a sale. But to the formula manufacturers, stealing business from the rival brands was worth paying an employee to do.