The supply chain in China, including thousands of mainland factories, is reeling from a 13.6% increase in the minimum wage, as reported yesterday by CNBC. As a result, the lowest salary is being pushed up to 1,500 yuan or $240 per month. The increase was caused by a series of strikes that occurred around the Pearl River Delta, a major Chinese industrial center.
Chinese export manufacturers in the Hong Kong area expect that the increase will result in the downsizing—or complete closing—of 1/3 of Hong Kong’s 50,000 factories in China. These suppliers are critical links in the supply chain that stretches all the way from China to Europe and the U.S. In addition to the wage increase, another reason for the anticipated decline in Chinese production relates to the general downturn in global economic activity.
The gap between U.S. labor costs and Chinese labor costs is narrowing. In fact, a recent article in the New York Times described how GE is bringing back jobs to the U.S. at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, KY. In return, the union agreed to a two-tier labor structure, where the U.S. employees who are hired will be paid $10 to $15 per hour less than what the current union workers are making.
Let’s do the math. The offshore jobs that are being backsourced to GE’s Appliance Park will result in U.S. workers making between $20,000 to $38,000 per year. The workers in China, who will receive the 13.6% increase in their minimum wages, will be making $2,880 per year. Thus, G.E.’s workers will be paid approximately 700 to 1,300 per cent more than their Chinese counterparts. Jeffrey Immelt, GE’s CEO, is spearheading the U.S. government’s campaign to bring jobs back to the U.S. Are these new, Appliance Park jobs being brought back because of lower labor costs? Or, are political factors affecting the decision?
As discussed in an interview with a U.S. manufacturing executive who lived in China for 13 years, global manufacturers who are looking to minimize their labor costs are locating factories in Viet Nam, not China. This strategy—chasing every cent of labor savings—requires rejiggering the supply chain every few years. Vietnam’s minimum wage is only US$85 per month (or $1,020 per year). Thus, Chinese workers are paid 282% more than Vietnamese workers.
Although the labor differential gap between the U.S. and Asian countries is narrowing, it is still significant. Offshoring will continue to be attractive to firms with products that have
- High labor content
- Large Production volumes
- Low variety
- Low transportation costs
Products that meet these criteria—such as electronics assembly—will most likely never return to the U.S. Furthermore, in certain industries—for example, in computer and cell phone production—most of the companies that comprise the supply chain are situated in Asia. Given this reality, moving production to the U.S. would be uneconomical. In these industries, hoping for backsourcing to happen is like waiting for an airplane to touch down that is simply not going to land [on U.S. shores].
In conclusion, the key determinant in terms of where to produce is based on total cost, not just labor cost. One must begin by looking at the manufacturing process to determine where the most economical location is. Although China’s increase in its minimum wage is significant, it is just one of many factors to consider.
What do you think? Is there a future for manufacturing in the U.S.? Given the labor differential between China and the U.S., do you think that we can still compete?