Archive for March 18th, 2011


Sociable division of labour

Performing general/maintenance tasks in China is a very sociable event. After all, why send one person to fix something when a crowd can do the same job and make it a sociable experience at the same time?

There is usually a supervisor/manager person who oversees the task. He looks important, may carry a piece of paper or clipboard, but doesn’t often do anything. Often he is accompanied by a junior supervisor, or manager-in-training, who does NOT look important and does even less than the person he is job-shadowing. He really looks like a spare part.

Then there is the actual maintenance guy – the only one that knows what he is doing – although a free-flowing stream of suggestions and advice is offered by all members of the team. If he is lucky, he might have an apprentice to do some of the more menial aspects of the task at hand while the master maintenance guy gets on with the important stuff.

Sometimes, if an interpreter is needed, like the time when our air conditioner decided to play “dead” in the middle of last summer’s heat wave, the team is accompanied by an interpreter, and perhaps someone from the estate management office that has nothing better to do on that day and needs an outing because he has been deprived of other forms of social interaction..

When we first arrived in Shanghai, our shipment of belongings was delivered by an unpacking crew of  5 or 6 people, but only 2 1/2 of them did any actual unpacking.

In most restaurants, this concept of division of labour is also widely practiced: there are hostesses to welcome you at the door; different hostesses to show you to your table; one group of waiters/waitresses to bring you the menu and take your order; another group of servers who actually bring the food from the kitchen and hand it over to the first group to place it on your table; and a third group who come and clear the dishes away at the end of the meal. It is a good practice because it means there are more jobs for more people.

So far the only exception that we have seen to this sociable labour practice was the poor post office lady at the parcel counter on the Saturday before Chinese New Year, when we – i.e. the Saigon shopper and ourselves – and 50 other people were trying to test/stretch the capabilities of China Post. She had two colleagues (both male): one at the collections side of the counter and the other checking the contents of the parcels. The collections guy had a seriously underwhelming amount of work and the inspection guy gave each parcel a cursory glance at best.

But poor Mrs Why-Am-I-Doing-Everything-Myself? behind the counter bravely handed out forms; picked the next lucky customer out of the scrum; collected forms; packaged the goods into China Post boxes of various sizes; sealed the boxes; weighed the parcels; calculated the money required; answered questions; settled disputes; collected the money; heaved the parcels from the weighing machine (in our case 20 kg each); filled in the weigh-bill documents; added the documents to the parcels; and then tossed/lifted the completed packages into the heap waiting for transit.

This brave heroine/martyr of the Post Office, “manning” the whole show in the face of a growing crowd of eager and ever-restless wanna-be parcel senders, while Mr Collections and Mr Inspection parked off, she deserved a medal.

Oh, now I remember another task that is usually performed by a lone crusader – the veggie-weigher at the supermarket!

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March 2011
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