From the Desk of Anita Chan, Contributing Editor, Australia

The "Migrant Worker Commander": Zhang Quanshou and the Quanshun Labor Dispatch Company

Staff Writers
China Labor News Translations

(Editor's Note: Labour Dispatch is what we in Canada call Temporary Workers.)

In this issue of CLNT we address the increasing use of labour dispatch in China, with particular focus on the unusual case of a company called Quanshun. Former migrant-workers-turned-entrepreneur Zhang Quanshou has been hailed in the Chinese media, for pioneering a new model of labour dispatch supposed to be a win-win for workers and employers alike.

Quanshun dispatches workers on-demand, to meet the fluctuating needs of manufacturing enterprises. When workers are no longer needed, Quanshun takes them back and provide them with food, board and a daily living allowance until they are assigned to a new job. Not only has Zhang Quanshou made a personal fortune out of his Quanshun model, but he is so highly regarded by government that he has been elected a delegate to the National People's Congress.

He is affectionately known as the "migrant worker commander" for the tight discipline he maintains amongst his work force. This issue of CLNT will examine the increasing use of dispatch labor in China, and challenge the very positive spin put on the Quanshou model by mainland Chinese media.

Dispatch Labor in China

In the past few years manufacturing factories in China increasingly prefer to recruit so-called agency workers or dispatch workers rather than hiring full-time regular workers. This situation has aggravated since the passing of the labour contract labour that began enforcement in January 2008. Labour dispatch is now playing a very important role in China's current labour relationships.

In this issue CLNT translates an article about a labour agent company in the Pearl River Delta. The company, Quanshun, has been upheld as a model in the labour dispatch industry after receiving a lot of applause from the government, the media, and even academics. The article describes the company and its boss, Zhang Quanshou, in a very positive light. However, the details provided in the article reveal what one can characterize as an odd, if not outright authoritarian system of employment relations in some of the China's labour dispatch companies.

Labour assignment is not a new phenomenon. In the West it has been widely practiced since the late 1970s as a mode of non-standard employment to introduce flexible labour into the market.

In China, this practice was first introduced into foreign-invested companies in late 1980s. But at that time, it was mostly used in the hiring of professionals, not ordinary workers. This practice caught on in China only more recently because since the beginning of the economic reform migrant workers in China have already been excluded from the regular labour markets and denied full social and economic rights for many years.

Their employers could enjoy labour flexibility without feeling the pressure of the legal system. They could employ migrant workers without labour contracts, and dismiss them without much or any compensation. In this sense for some two decades it could be said dispatch labour was not needed to attain labour flexibility.

The situation, however, has changed in the past few years for a number of reasons.

1. With the rapid expansion of large factories in Guangdong province, factories are facing more pressure in labour supply. Labour agents provide recruiting services to employers to alleviate the problem of labour shortage.

2. At the same time migrant workers are developing stronger legal consciousness, and learning to defend their legitimate labour rights. Recruiting dispatch workers can help factory owners shift the legal responsibility of dismissing workers to labour agencies which are the direct employers.

3. Using dispatch workers can help manufacturers save on many labour cost, especially in social insurances. Usually, factories pay similar wages to dispatch workers and regular workers, but most of them do not take out insurance for dispatch workers, or under-insure them, saving on average at least 150-300 RMB per worker per month.

4. Labour agents provide a flexible labour force to manufacturers to balance the busy and slack seasons in the fluctuating global demand for labour.

Who are running these labour agencies in China? One type is directly or indirectly run by labour branches of governments. Another is run by registered commercial human resources companies that usually handle a professional team with higher education background. Some of them might even have carried out independent research projects on labour issues. The third type is managed as private firms and directed by one person rather than a team. Quanshun Company in this story belongs to the third category. A fourth type is unregistered, often referred to as "black" labour agents. Recruitment of the last two kinds of labour agents mostly depends on traditional social networks, such as kinship and local networks.

The Quanshou Model

It can be said that the owner-manager of Quanshun Company, Zhang Quanshou has discovered a very new method of running a labour agency, in that he feeds and houses his army of repository workers. He runs his "base" like a para-military organization, expanding from a few dozen workers to 10,000 within four years.

He has a stable cliental of about 20 factories when times are good and when labour is in great demand. His workers are always on call, even sending them off in the middle of the night when factories need labour urgently, and take them back to his "base" when they are laid-off.

He makes about 2 RMB (20 cents US) per day on every worker he dispatches and in a matter of a few years his personal assets have topped one million RMB. As seen from the photos he provides his army of workers with very basic and Spartan accommodation at the base. His is an extremely paternalistic style of management. He gives out his mobile phone number to all the workers who can contact him in case of trouble and he revels in being called a "commander" and likes calling his company a "base" and his workers, his "family."

Are such labour agents good or bad for migrant workers? The issue is publicly being debated in China.

The labour dispatch phenomenon itself is full of contradictions. Zhang Quanshou in our translated article is portrayed in a positive light. He has taken care of workers who are victims of the flexible labour market, but he is also focused on making a fortune and gaining fame from the migrant workers.

He negotiates wages on their behalf, but he is not a true worker representative. He has succeeded in recruiting workers, but he only turns them into an obedient labour force using his quasi- militaristic management style. He has guaranteed workers' basic income while they are waiting for work, but he hasn't bought social insurance for them and never directly pays them their entire wage. Instead he delays payment by sending money to their parents. He helps many older workers find jobs, but he also recruits many under-aged workers, even child labour. For instance, Li Miaomiao in the article is 17 years old but has already two years of working experience in Quanshun.

Download a translated article about the Quanshou model, from the Southern Metropolitan Daily, From Migrant Worker to Commander or click here to view the original.

Download a translated version of the latest recruitment flier from Quanshou:

Latest Recruitment Leaflet from the Shenzhen Quanshun Human Resources Development Co. Ltd.

The emerging labour dispatch system is formed by a triangular labour relationship between migrant workers, labour agents, and capital. However, migrant workers fail to benefit from the system because the labour agents have monopolized their collective bargaining power. Agents like Quanshun are the ones who negotiate with employers. As they control a great amount of the flexible labour force, they are allowing capital to use the workers as disposable goods that can be discarded when not needed.

July 23, 2009 — Return to cover.