China’s rivals gain as factory wages soar
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China’s rivals gain as factory wages soar
www.nemhe.com    Time:2011-10-09 10:47    column:Culture

China may be famous as the workshop of the world, but one Hong Kong lingerie- maker has found Thailand a more alluring destination, as companies shift production to cheaper countries.

Top Form International, which supplies companies such as Walmart from its south China factories, has been forced to face a new reality in China as workers demand higher wages.

Sitting in his Hong Kong office across the border from Guangdong province, Michael Austin, Top Form’s chief financial officer, says the company is seeing wage increases of 20 per cent every year. “China’s policy is double wages in five years. We expect it to be shorter than that.”

After the minimum wage in Shenzhen, the special economic zone just across the border from Hong Kong, was raised from Rmb1,100 ( $172) to Rmb1,320 in April, the company speeded up plans to reduce its sewing workforce to 400, down from 1,000 a few years ago. The Chinese government also increased manufacturing wages nationwide following a series of suicides at the electronics contract manufacturer Foxconn.

Top Form’s bigger challenge, however, is China’s demographic change. The cohort of young workers entering the workforce is declining every year. Selective female foetus abortions because of a one-child policy and preference for boys has also created the perverse effect of fewer women working in factories. Owners in southern China report the ratio of factory workers is 60:40 male to female whereas it used to be predominantly female.

Last week, the UBS economist Jonathan Anderson released a report after crunching import data from the US and European Union for the first half of 2011. He found China’s light-manufacturing share is starting to decline from above 50 per cent to about 48 per cent. Beneficiaries include Bangladesh (up 19 per cent in exports to the US) and Vietnam (16 per cent).

The first half of 2011 “looks a pretty convincing turning point”, says Mr Anderson of a shift in labour-intensive manufacturing to south-east Asia. India and the Philippines, by contrast, which should be “natural destinations” for labour-intensive investment appear to be sitting out the action, he says.

For Guangdong, China’s most industrialised and wealthiest province, this migration of low-paying jobs is what provincial leaders have been advocating for a couple of years. The province lowered its growth rate target to 8 per cent annually for the current five-year plan that runs from 2011-2015. The province’s governor, Huang Huahua, and the party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang, have repeatedly stressed the need for polluting industries to move out in favour of more technology-intensive industries.

Michael Enright, a professor of business at the University of Hong Kong, says this may be the first time in history when a government has actively sought to turn its back on its early industrial past. This is broadly Beijing’s goal as well, but it is harder to do at national level because the workforce in interior provinces is not as skilled as in Guangdong.

For an insight into how quickly manufacturing of low-end apparel and footwear is starting to move from southern China, half-yearly financial results from the global sourcing company Li & Fung also provided an indicator last month. Li & Fung sources everything from T-shirts and anoraks to furniture and beauty products for western retailers such Walmart Stores and Toys R Us.
 The company’s chief executive, Bruce Rockowitz, unveiled a set of numbers that in effect heralded a new world order in clothing, furniture and footwear manufacturing. Sourcing from Bangladesh by the US $16bn behemoth had risen by as much as 52% while Turkey and Indonesia had experienced increases of 20 per cent or more.

Roland Lee, in an attempt to ensure his company, Hilford, stays profitable in the competitive business of making jeans, has reduced order sizes that Hilford takes on to about 2,000 pieces. He has also moved upmarket by increasing customisation for clients such as Armani Exchange. Rising cotton prices of more than 100 per cent last year coupled with wage increases has prompted competitors to move production to India, he reports.

The high reject rate on apparel from India makes him wary, however. Mr Lee continues to manufacture out of Shenzhen, which also boasts 24-hour customs clearance at its border with Hong Kong.

Similarly, for Top Form expensive lingerie and bras will continue to be made at Nanhai in Guangdong because of higher workforce productivity. Many suppliers are also clustered nearby, in an area nicknamed Bra City.

China’s increasingly first- world infrastructure, higher productivity and huge size mean it will continue to have a commanding share of manufacturing for jeans, clothes and toys as Li & Fung’s presentation last month revealed. The volume of production by the company’s suppliers in China grew by 30 per cent in the first half of this year with more suppliers moving to lower-cost interior provinces. Mr Rockowitz quips that the answer to “what next“ in global manufacturing – is China.

(Source:FTchinese.com  By Rahul Jacob in Hong Kong)

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