r Zhang (above) earned 6,000 yuan (S$1,200) as a mobile phone shop assistant here, but now earns 7,000 yuan back home with an employment agency. He is happier there. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF ZHANG MINGPU AND CHEN YUNYI
BEIJING - Mr Zhang Mingpu, 23, swears that his first time working in Singapore was also his last.
His job as a mobile phone shop assistant required him to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, he said. But his 6,000 yuan (S$1,200) pay left him with hardly any money after deducting rent and agent fees of some 25,000 yuan.
So, when his two-year contract ended earlier this year, he headed home to central Zhengzhou city, where he now works in an employment agency drawing 7,000 yuan a month.
'I can earn similar pay here without having to work as hard. I can also be close to my family and friends,' he says.
For years, China has sent millions of workers overseas in search of higher pay to labour-starved countries such as Singapore.
But of late, they seem to be having second thoughts about working overseas, a trend that could have long-term effects on Singapore's labour situation.
There are no official statistics on the number of Chinese workers who head to Singapore every year. But several employment agencies in both countries tell The Straits Times that it is tougher to attract and hire workers for jobs in Singapore, citing rising wages in China as a key factor.
Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics showed that the average annual salaries of urban Chinese workers at non-private companies reached 42,000 yuan last year, up 14.3 per cent from 2010. Adjusted for inflation, wages grew about 8.5 per cent.
The increase was due in part to higher minimum wages approved by the government to quell any social unrest ahead of a leadership transition this year.
Minimum wages rose on average by nearly 22 per cent last year in 21 Chinese cities and provinces, and are expected to grow by at least 13 per cent annually till 2015.
The competition for labour between employers in the coastal economic powerhouses such as Guangdong and those in inland provinces such as Sichuan is another factor for the wage climb.
By contrast, wages offered by Singapore employers have remained largely the same or increased more slowly, say agencies.
Ms Ashley Lai, a manager at an employment company in Guangzhou, used to send about 10 Cantonese chefs yearly to Singapore. But since 2010, she has not been able to get any applicants.
'Singapore employers offer around $2,000 to $2,800 monthly for a Cantonese chef,' she says.
'But chefs in Guangzhou on average already earn a similar salary, higher than the $1,600 several years ago. They can earn even more if they snag a job in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai.'
Now, chefs prefer to go to European countries, which pay better, or to nearby Macau, she says.
Reports of Singapore bosses not paying Chinese workers have not helped, says Ms Li Yongjiao, a manager of the Golden Phoenix employment agency in Beijing.
The need for foreign workers to undergo skills training in Singapore is another factor, say agencies, as that means less time to earn money.
Agent fees as high as 30,000 yuan also discourage workers from leaving China.
Agencies say they have to try harder and spend more to get applicants for jobs in Singapore.
A Shanghai employment agency manager who declined to be named says that previously, it could attract 1,000 applicants for 100 job openings by placing advertisements in Shanghai alone.
'Now, we have to place job ads in places like Jilin in the north-east and Sichuan in the west,' the manager said.
Mr Chua Beng Cheng of the Apcee Manpower Services agency in Singapore had to set up job interviews in Beijing and Shanghai last week for a Singapore employer.
Previously, such interviews could be held in one city alone, where there were enough applicants for the openings, he says.
Labour expert Liu Erduo of Renmin University believes that labour-importing countries will have to start preparing for a dwindling supply of Chinese workers as the country's economy continues to grow.
Professor Liu adds: 'The solution is simple - higher wages.'
In Singapore, steps are already being taken. Employers have to pay higher foreign worker levies as part of tightened government policies to cut the country's reliance on foreign labour and to focus on productivity efforts.
But for now, there are still takers for Singapore jobs. Guang- zhou undergraduate Chen Yunyi, 22, is heading there later this month for a ground staff job at Changi Airport. She will earn about $1,200 a month - double what her peers get back home.
'It is a good pay for a fresh graduate, and I get to experience working overseas,' she says.