Rising Labor Costs in China and Their Impact on the Supply Chain

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In October 2011, Simon Rabinovitch of the Financial Times published an article entitled “China labor cost soars as wages surge by 22%.” This figure is an average across the breadth of the country, with Shenzen and Beijing named as the costliest locations to do business. This trend has been covered extensively by the media in recent months, including Supply Chain Digest last month. Rabinovitch’s article is interesting, and he listed a number of factors influencing this trend. Chinese inflation and local municipal policy on raising the minimum wage are the primary factors. Rabinovitch also talked of this being a direct policy of the Chinese government, driving municipal action, to move activity in the region further up the value chain. We now see contract manufacturers offering managed services, Celestica being a prime example. It is simply a case of margin. CMs build to low margin and high volume. Margin jumps significantly when they move into professional services. It is incumbent upon the supply chain to ask if this is a positive move or a negative move. In previous blogs, I have written about the move toward the Asia-Pacific labor market in the mid to late 90s, primarily driven by low-cost manufacturing, low corporate rates, power services, and inexpensive labor. So, the question is, how does this impact change of cost in the region, impact global companies and their manufacturing base, and ultimately, the cost for the consumer? This is where the discussion becomes interesting. Do we move out of the Asia sphere, or is this actually a where supply chain needs to be positioned—close to an emerging market? Why would you disregard a market of this size  and continue to view this portion of the globe as an export-driven manufacturing base to support western consumerism? We need to be cautious about a knee-jerk reaction here and move bases out of China to lower cost bases in the APJ region or elsewhere. This reaction may well turn out to be a case of kicking the can down the road, as this wage trend is playing out across all of APJ. So instead of looking at the negative, the supply chain should look at this as a potential growth and consumer market as well as a manufacturing base. So initially, the base margin is being squeezed. The upshot of this trend, however, is that a large technology-hungry population has expendable income for “luxury goods.” Take China alone. Chinas population exceeds 1.3 billion. With an average workforce of 900 million, this is an astonishing large consumer market. If the working population has money to spend, then, the demand chain needs to rise to the occasion and deliver. As a profession, the demand chain is becoming just as much of a buzz word as the supply chain. So looking at the whole picture, reducing baseline margin, and placing the money into consumer hands will drive the "demand chain," and ultimately drive sale of goods. Volume will ultimately win out over margin. Companies need to get “smarter” at managing their supply chains. Labor is only one cost factor in margin as discussed in previous blogs. Technology and people create a lean supply chain. Give people the tools required to react to the market, and the supply chain will find its own margin, and adjust accordingly. So the discussion becomes market size versus market margin.

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