World / Reporter's Journal

Labor Day a time for China and US to reflect

By Chen Weihua (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-09-02 05:21

It's a surprise for many Chinese to find out that Americans celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September, instead of on May 1 as China and most nations in the world do.

The surprise comes with good reason because the May 1 International Labor Day – also known as International Workers' Day – traces its roots back to commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

So it's puzzling why Americans don't choose such a historic day as their Labor Day. Some say that it was because many socialist and communist movements the world over adopted the May 1 holiday, while others contend that then US President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), the only US president who won two nonconsecutive terms, was worried that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the deadly riot.

For most Chinese, the Haymarket Massacre was an epic American workers' movement to fight for an eight-hour workday. However, that fight still seems to be a mission unaccomplished today, at least according to various polls and studies.

Labor Day a time for China and US to reflectA Gallup poll released on Aug 29 showed that adults employed full-time in the US report working 47 hours a week on average, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule suggests.

At the same time, half of all full-time workers say they typically work more than 40 hours a week, nearly 40 percent say they work at least 50 hours a week, and 18 percent say they work more than 60 hours a week.

According to the United Nation's International Labor Organization a few years ago, Americans worked 137 more hours a year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours a year than British workers and 499 more hours a year than French workers.

While US commentators often bemoan the fact that while most countries in the world, including many developing countries such as China, offer paid maternity leave to workers, the only superpower in the world does not have a mandatory federal policy for any paid maternity leave.

What is worse, the US stands with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland as the only four nations in the world that have no national law mandating paid time off for new parents.

China's laws stipulate that newly married women above 20 and men above 22 are entitled to three days of paid leave. Those paid holidays are extended to 15 days if the women are over 23 and men are over 25, since it is the government's policy to encourage late marriage.

Starting in 2012, China extended paid maternity leave from 90 days to 98 days.

In this sense, the US is not only an outlier among the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in terms of labor rights and benefits, it also lags behind developing countries such as China in certain labor benefits.

For China, however, labor practices are found to be often less friendly to workers than many other developing nations, such as those in Latin America and Africa.

For example, having workers work overtime and sometimes overtime without compensation has become a common practice with some Chinese companies. It's impossible to do so in countries from Brazil to Ethiopia. And firing workers has also been more difficult in those countries.

Such different labor practices have also become a huge challenge as Chinese companies increasingly go global, without realizing that they should not and cannot transplant their labor practices at home to foreign countries.

The 2013 China Workforce Study Report released by Zhongshan University and China Social Sciences Academic Press last December showed that a Chinese employee works an average of 51.3 hours a week, 7.3 hours more than the maximum 44 hours stipulated by the country's labor laws.

Meanwhile, the report found that an average Chinese works 24.75 days a month and more than 70 percent work 28 days.

Despite the fact that China's five-day workweek system adopted in 1995 has greatly cut down the yearly work hours for the average Chinese, the report showed that an average Chinese employee works 2,207 hours a year, compared to 1,790 hours in the United States.

The latest OECD report this year shows that the world's top five hardest working OECD countries are Mexico (2,226 hours), South Korea (2,163 hours), Greece (2,034 hours), Chile (2,029 hours) and Poland (1,929 hours).

The China workforce report also revealed that more than 38 percent of employees worked overtime in the month prior to the survey, but only 45 percent were compensated in various ways.

A weak rule of law in China has often left workers in an underdog position when their rights are violated. Meanwhile, many feel the tough job market has to a large extent discouraged workers from even lodging complaints against their employers for excessive overtime and especially uncompensated overtime.

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