Chinese are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes today after Dragon Boat festival, a national holiday that excused workers from reporting to employers between Monday and Wednesday this week. However, during the off time, much of the country was recovering from an elongated workweek where employees were expected to turn up in offices and at construction sites on Saturday and Sunday to make up workdays missed during the holiday.
Since 2008, the government has taken it upon itself to shuffle the country’s work schedule to fit a tightly defined idea of how the masses should relax. That year, Beijing broke up the three-day May Day holiday and allocated the days to Dragon Boat and two other traditional Chinese occasions.
The four holidays, including May Day, now consist of one day apiece (China actually gained one day of holiday). National Day in October and Chinese New Year, a lunar-calendar holiday in the winter, retained weeklong vacation status. Western New Years’ on January 1 has a single-day observance as well.
The schedule was perhaps too simplistic for the Chinese government. When a festival falls on, for example, a Wednesday as it did this week, the weekend is moved to Monday and Tuesday to give the illusion of three continuous days of holiday joy. Of course, most employers expected pencil pushers to be at their desks Saturday and Sunday morning.
The objective of the new plan was to promote spending on shorter vacations, all the while maintaining the productivity of its workforce. It’s thought that one day off in the middle of the week would not induce the same flurry of domestic travel spending as three days off.
Some media commentators have referred to the pushy schedule as “being vacationed.”
This year’s programming will put Chinese (or anyone working for Chinese companies) at work on five Saturdays and seven Sundays. For New Year’s, the first holiday of the year, the entire country was asked to worked eight consecutive days, a government directive that violated its own labor laws.
Taking care of business
Dissolving May Day, or what was called a “golden weekend,” was a step in the right direction in resolving holiday congestion.
In China, a holiday for all is essentially a holiday for none. Holy mountains are swarmed with hellish crowds. Vacationers vie for ever last inch of beach space at sea resorts. Perhaps worst of all, the country’s transportation system is pushed to maximum capacity and sometimes beyond (it still is during Chinese New Year, which is thought to be the largest movement of people on the planet).
But even if the government has curbed some of the crowds, the sacredness of the five-day work week (for those it may apply to in China) should not be violated. Asking people to work seven or eight days in a row is comparable to asking an 8-year-old to do math homework for longer than 40 minutes. By the end of the long stretch, productivity will be low. The government also looked foolish violating its own labor law for the January 1 holiday.
An alternative to the current regime is being hotly debated in the Chinese media. Economic Information, a government-back news site, invited specialist to debate the topic. Paid leave that can be taken at will instead of set holidays has gained much support.
Such a system would almost instantly relieve China’s transportation bottleneck. It would maintain travel spending and also spread that spending more evenly throughout the year. That way, hoteliers and travel companies would be less reliant on a few key weekends.
Solid arguments against paid leave have been waged. Even with the current schedule, many employers in the manufacturing sector require their workers to come in on holidays without paying them the overtime salary that is specified in Chinese law. Replacing a set schedule with paid leave would make it easy for employers simply cut paid leave from paychecks because a more flexible schedule would make corporate vacation policies’ be harder to police.
Perhaps an intermediate solution would be to follow the US in setting holidays. A holiday that lands on a Wednesday could be moved to Monday or Friday, avoiding a disfiguration of the workweek but maintaining the opportunity for precious domestic consumption.
However, China shouldn’t follow the US too closely. Official holidays in the US are guaranteed only to federal employees. While many other employers will shut the office on those days too, the number of holidays guaranteed to US workers outside the government is zero. It’s the only developed country without any form of guaranteed paid leave.
China has done well in granting the masses several vacation days, even if the majority of that time is spent standing in an endless queue.