Chinese employees of multinationals are finding their jobs no longer secure and enviable as a massive round of layoffs has hit such companies.
HSBC Life Insurance Co. fired 22 staff and 138 insurance agents working for its life insurance joint venture in Shanghai on March 20. The move has sparked fears among other multinational employees that they could likewise lose their jobs overnight.
The company dismissed its entire sales force as it decided to approach the market in a different way, Shellie Zhang, a Shanghai-based spokeswoman, told Xinhua.
Her words apparently proved scant consolation to those out of work, as 50 members of HSBC staff staged a protest at the firm's Shanghai office on the day of the layoffs.
HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver has closed or sold 47 businesses since taking the top job in 2011. He is focusing on markets where the company is most profitable, according to a bank statement.
HSBC's China insurance venture, which was set up in June 2009 in Shanghai, suffered 146.3 million yuan (about 23.6 million U.S. dollars) in losses in 2011, 20 percent more than in 2010, notes the latest annual report on its website.
The protesters told Xinhua they were staggered to lose their livelihoods so suddenly.
"I chose the job because of HSBC's international background, which I thought may give me a bright future, at least a stable career," said Huang Lulu, who graduated from a university in Canada with multiple job offers three years ago.
HSBC Life Insurance Co. said in a statement that it will help all the laid-off staff to find new positions.
"I believe what they promise on this issue, but this has knocked my confidence in multinationals," said Huang.
For many years, employment with a multinational was taken by Chinese graduates to mean higher salaries, CV building and no redundancy worries.
In 2012, however, Nokia and Motorola started a round of layoffs in China, with over 1,000 losing jobs. Other similar companies have also taken the same measures during the world economic downturn.
Last year, many multinational employees became eager to change jobs due to worries of being laid off, which was very rare in the past, according to Zhang Mei, manager of the Chinese venture of the Manpower Group, a U.S. human resources (HR) agency.
"Chinese people used to believe that layoffs generally only happen to workers with poorer education backgrounds. But now, people have started to realize that everyone in a company can get sacked," said Hao Jian, a consultant with Zhilian, a local HR service provider.
Another increasingly common experience for Chinese employed by multinationals is being placed on indefinite unpaid leave until business picks up. It is understandable for many in this situation to lose patience and resign.
Fang Qiang, a former machine operator for iPad in south China's Guangdong Province, quit his job before the Chinese Lunar New Year in February after a four-month period of leave.
"I didn't know when I would go back to work, neither did the factory. So I quit," he told Xinhua at a job fair in Shanghai in late February.
"Some employers are suffering hard times right now, but they are waiting for new orders so that business will return in the near future," explained Zhilian's Hao Jian.
A former engineer with a local crane manufacturer said at the job fair that he "had to quit the job" because he was paid just 1,450 yuan over the Lunar New Year holiday month.
"Some of my colleagues chose to take some training, waiting for returns to their positions," the man, surnamed Liu, added.
COMING OF NEW LAYOFF WAVE
Zeng Xiangquan, dean of School of Labor and Human Resources of the Renmin University of China, warned that "a possible domino effect of layoff may fall on migrant workers and university diploma holders as well."
Some laid-off multinational white-collar workers may compete for jobs with new university graduates. As a result, the graduates may in turn fight for work designed for migrant workers, according to Zeng.
China is undergoing an economic transformation that needs high-tech innovative talents, said Chen Zhao, a professor with Fudan University. Millions of workers were laid off during the last comparable process in China during 1998-2001, with massive emergence of private-owned firms competing for market share with state-owned manufacturers.
The layoff wave hit seven to nine million people per year from 1998 to 2001, according to the Year Book of Chinese Labor Statistics.
A big group of the workers fired at that time are still living on meager incomes and are known as "4050" as most were born in the 1940s and 1950s.
"If some white-collar workers continue their routine work without picking up more skills and qualifications, they may be the next generation of '4050' as they are not young enough to start from the very beginning," said Feng Lijuan, head consultant with 51job.com, a local job hunting website.
It's time for attention to be paid to the white-collar status quo and the government should provide training and psychological aid to these workers, urged Zhang Libin, director of the labor market department at the Labor Science Research Institute under China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.