Image credit: Scandic Sourcing
A growing number of Western companies are bringing manufacturing back to their home countries in a trend known as "reshoring”. Is this trend the beginning of the end of outsourced manufacturing in China?
Rising labor costs in China is making some American companies relocate on home soil. A survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group in September 2014 showed a 20% increase in American businesses repatriating their businesses to the US or moving production from China to Mexico.
However the trend of reshoring is still very small and limited to certain industries. It has also become a media buzzword, with more anecdotal evidence to support it than factual. While it is true that the textile, garment and footwear industries are showing trends to be moving out of China to countries like Vietnam (where worker’s salaries are roughly a third of their Chinese counterparts), or at least that textile companies are developing a China +1 strategy, the trend of reshoring does not seem to apply to industrial production. According to a manufacturing survey made by the Boston Consulting Group in February 2012, a majority of producers of fabricated metal products, electronic and electrical equipment, computer parts, and industrial machinery are not planning to reshore their businesses.
80.000 manufacturing jobs reshored to the US in the past three years. However, the idea that manufacturing jobs in the West will have a big resurgence is far from realistic.
“The main reason China is still attractive for Western manufacturers is that there isn’t enough skilled labor back home, especially in heavy industry”, says Per Linden, CEO of Scandic Sourcing which consults Western businesses in China. “Skilled industrial labor such as engineers, machine operators and welders are still plentiful in China and the capacity for industrial production is enormous; the trend is not going to reverse in the foreseeable future”.
Most experts agree.
"It's taken 60 years for [offshoring] to happen, and it's going to take decades for it to reverse," says Harry Moser, the founder and president of the Reshoring Initiative who are actively lobbying for bringing manufacturing back to the US.
According to Moser, the phenomenon of reshoring can be overstated. "No one claims — at least we don't claim — that you're going to see a million new jobs from reshoring next year," Moser says. "That would be totally irrational, irresponsible. And we don't have the workers, the skilled workers, to do it”.
American manufacturing companies who have brought production back to US soil have experienced problems finding reliable staff workers who could pass drug tests, do basic math needed for the job, and show up on time the minimum wage, according to Forbes.
Another big reason to stay is China’s booming consumer market. With nearly 350 million people and growing in China’s middle class, the country is likely to be a company’s biggest target market over the next 20 years and that is reason alone to keep a foot in the door. Thus, even even textile companies that has much to gain by moving production to South East Asia keep production in China and develop +1 strategies rather than leaving China altogether.
A big reason why companies want to stay in China is ready access to the booming Chinese consumer market.
Per Linden concludes that the sheer output and access to skilled labor in China will be factors that will keep a lion’s share of the world’s industrial manufacturing in China. Thus, the future of Chinese manufacturing looks strong despite rising Chinese labor costs. “Even in China, skilled labor is highly sought after, so the trend will be more automated factories with higher efficiency and more streamlined flows requiring less labor”, Per Linden concludes, which will make Chinese factories even more competitive in the foreseeable future.
When locating specific suppliers in China, business clusters are usually a good place to start. A business cluster is defined as a geographical concentration of interrelated businesses which benefits from the co-location in a number of ways as well as a value added production chain. If you are looking for aluminum products, source in Nanhai, if you are looking for linen products, turn to Suihua in Heilongjiang, IT and circuit boards, source in Suzhou, etc. Knowing about these clusters is valuable knowledge when deciding about where to set up operations, outsource production or find suppliers in China.
Business clusters usually form spontaneously by the work of market forces, or develop out of pre-existing special economic zones, such as the information and technology clusters in Beijing and Shenzhou and the electronics and biotech clusters in Shanghai’s Pudong area. There are export driven clusters, resource-driven clusters, market driven clusters, and so forth, depending on their geographical location.
The tailors of Cixi
Regional specializations are nothing new to China. One interesting example is the tailoring center of Cixi in Ningbo which traditionally served as a major clothing manufacturer to Beijing from 1680’s to the 1930’s. When the local government looked for ways of growing their region, they looked back in history, and transformed factories producing military uniforms to instead produce more specialized garments, and gave support to local business owners. The Cixi cluster now produces around 5% of China’s total textile output.
Other notable specialized clusters are Datang in Sichuan province which produces some 6 billion pairs of socks each year, or the city of Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta which creates a third of the world’s supply of magnetic recording devices used in computer hard drives.
Differences between clusters and Special Economic Zones
Sometimes a specialized cluster develops out of China’s many Special Economic Zones (SEZs), but most of the time they do not, and a business cluster differs quite a bit from SEZs generally speaking, in that the SEZ usually receives more foreign direct investments, have stronger focus on export with closer links to the global markets, and usually have greater access to technology. Conversely, a business cluster tends to operate in more labor intense, low-tech environments where local government support isn’t quite as enthusiastic as in a SEZ.
In some cases, the local government supports the specialized cluster by establishing an industrial park, which in effect is a government entity. If you are establishing a factory in China, locating in an industrial park can offer some unique benefits, such as proximity to local officials, tax authorities, environmental inspectors, etc., who usually have offices in the industrial parks. This proximity can facilitate increased Guanxi with such officials, and offer unique advantages, as one well connected Chief Finance Officer said in an article in Asia magazine: “For other companies it will take three months to get one approval. For us, maybe three days”.
Where to look
The vast majority of China’s industrial clusters are located near China’s east coast, where infrastructure is much more developed than in the west. A survey made in 2006 of 138 foreign and domestic logistics companies by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, found that over 80% of their warehouses were located in just three different regions: the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and Greater Bohai Bay.
Shanghai. Credit checks of Chinese companies have been made significantly easier with an online National Company Credit Information database providing free information about Chinese domestic companies to the public.
China’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce has launched the National Company Credit Information System which is an online resource that provides free information about companies to the public. This followed the Provisional Rules on Enterprise Information Disclosure act which took effect on October 1 last year. The new disclosure act require all companies, foreign and domestic in the PRC to submit annual credit reports for public disclosure via the publicly available Enterprise Credit and Information Disclosure System which can be accessed online on a real-time basis. With the new online database, anyone can simply log in and access relevant financial, asset and legal liabilities information – greatly improving financial transparency among businesses in China.
- This is good news for anyone evaluating suppliers and potential business partners in China, says Per Linden, CEO of the consulting firm Scandic Sourcing. One year ago, credit disclosure companies stopped getting access to tax reports, which made it difficult to make credit checks of Chinese companies. To get accurate info, we had to ask the companies themselves to disclose their annual audit reports, which they may or may not do. Now, the publicly available Credit and Information Disclosure System circumvents all that, and I think this is a big step towards simplifying credit checks in China.
Screenshots from the search function of the new online resource for credit disclosure which Chinese companies (and any other company operating in China) are expected to submit their financial information to.
The information companies are required to provide includes corporate registration data, record filing, chattel equity pledge registration, mortgage registration, and notably administrative penalties levied by the Chinese Administration of Industry and Commerce. Look for the latter when evaluating a potential partner or supplier; it’s an important indicator of a company’s creditworthiness and integrity that used to be confidential. The companies themselves are responsible for the authenticity and legality of the information they disclose and spot checks on the disclosed information will be conducted; third parties may report any information they suspect is false.
Companies that fail to submit their reports in time will be recorded in the directory of companies with abnormal business operations and if the company fail to fulfill their disclosure obligations within three years, they will be recorded in the directory of companies with serious illegal conduct, and their legal representative or person-in-charge will be prohibited from becoming a legal representative or person-in-charge of any other company for three years.
The website can be found here (in Chinese)
China might be enveloped into one border, but the differences in development and culture from region to region is enormous. Albeit the central and western parts of China has seen tremendous development efforts the last 10-15 years or so, they are still a far cry from China’s Eastern seaboard in terms of everything from local government support, to infrastructure, salaries and standards of living. Every province has ups and downs; and more crucially, every region challenges Western business owners with some kind of trade off in terms of cost vs supply chain. So the big question for any international business owner looking to invest in China is – where to start? Scandic Sourcing has put together an analysis.
Setting up in Eastern China – pros and cons
The bulk of Chinese manufacturing is taking place in China’s Eastern provinces such as Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai. These regions subsequently has the highest salary- and operation costs and the lowest provincial GDP-growth – as much of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is now streaming westwards with provinces such as Chongqing now receiving almost as much FDI as Shanghai. But China’s Eastern seaboard do offer other benefits such as greater access to a full supply chain, logistics and labor.
The biggest benefit with moving West is the much reduced land and labor cost, which has skyrocketed in Eastern China the past years, especially in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Just the cost of industrial land has seen an average increase with 11 USD to 21 USD per square foot in Eastern China and the minimum wages has risen with over 70% the last couple of years. Some western companies interviewed in a 2012 study by the British Chamber of Commerce claimed that the salary costs in Shanghai for an experienced engineer was almost the same as in the UK, whereas had they located in Xi’an in the Shaanxi province, the cost had been much lower.
The growth of Central and Western China
Western China and Central China has been targeted by two concurrent government campaigns such as the ”Go West” initiative in 1999 which targeted 12 Western provinces with over 8.5 trillion yuan over a decade, during which imports and exports in these provinces grew nine fold. Another campaign, the Rise of Central China campaign in 2004 saw a similar influx of government funds to bolster Central China’s regional development. The FDI to central China has risen dramatically with the growing development; for instance in Chengdu, the capital of the central Sichuan-province, 238 of the global fortune 500 companies has set up shop and the city now receives more foreign investments than Beijing. The future holds great promise for the Central and Western regions of China with cities such as Kunming, Chongqing and Chengdu destined to become future metropolises in par with Beijing and Shanghai.
Moving to Central China – pros and cons
The reasons to move to Western and Central China are, as mentioned, its much reduced labor and land costs. While the minimum wage can rise to 1600 yuan/month in regions such as Shanghai and Guangdong, it can dip well below 1000 in Western and Central China, and factory rental space can be one fourth of eastern counterparts. A study cited by China-Briefing from 2012 found that factory rental space fluctuated from 41 usd/square meter in the Eastern province of Tianjin, to 10 usd/square meter in Qingdao, which of course is significant.
One of the problems with these reductions in operating costs is that when they are balanced against the rising cost of transportation from the inland to China’s ports (a cost almost equivalent or more expensive than bringing the goods from China to its Western destination), the de facto cost savings for companies is not as big as one might expect.
Companies such as Kolkraft considered moving their operations to Hubei in central China and calculated that the total savings would only amount to 5-10% - which wasn’t enough to justify relocation considering the added difficulties in Central/Western China. Another company cited in a recent Economist article, Topline, found that moving inland would induce huge extra costs and take more time as shipping their products through China to the coast would take an extra week. Consequently, their supply chain remains on the coast.
Other problems with inland China is that the local government isn’t as professional as they might be in the East, as they are not as used to dealing with foreigners, and more often than not adopt a supervisor role rather than a service providing role (although this might be true to some degree in almost entire China). Firms setting up in Chengdu, Wuhan and Chongqing describe the efforts as almost completely unassisted by the local government, whereas they previously enjoyed thorough support in the regional city governments in coastal provinces.
China’s leading cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are surrounded by a cluster of smaller cities where conditions might be more ripe for investment for foreign business looking to reduce costs while not sacrificing access to supply chain and infrastructure. Sub-cities such as Kunshan, Suzhou and Hangzhou, west of Shanghai enjoys the benefits of the latters infrastructure and high speed rail network, while having lower operating costs (such as electricity, land and labor costs) as well as a more enthusiastic local government support. One company cited in a Brittish Chamber of Commerce report from 2012 said that the local government in Shanghai wasn’t interested in talking to them lest they invest a minimum of 100 million USD; but after inquiring into relocating to the neighboring city of Suzhou, half an hour west by the high speed train network, they found that the local government was much more willing to offer valuable support in form of tax breaks, reduced rent, accelerated investment approval and other preferential treatment without such requests.
Research the local conditions of various regions to find the one most suitable for your specific business. The most succesful businesses operating in China are the ones who adapts their business model to suit local conditions. Having adequate knowledge about local conditions, such as the legal environment, local customs, and potential business partners and suppliers in the area is crucial. One good place to start is to ask yourself where your competitors are located. Where are they and why are they there? Manufacturing in Central China can be a good choice if domestic customers are the focus. Similarly, if export is the main focus of your business, the coastal areas should rather be considered.
Scandic Sourcing had a chat with Alexandra Frenander, a new CSR co-worker at Scandic Sourcing with a long background in Code of Conduct work in Sweden on how to best approach the issue of Corporate Social Responsibility in China.
Name: Alexandra Frenander
Background: Master’s Degree in International labor law, has been working with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability issues in Sweden.
What is Corporate Social Responsibility and Code of Conduct?
CSR and Code of Conduct is implemented by companies to make sure that all parts of the operation is in line with rules and regulations (like the country’s labor law for instance), and that the work is handled safely and ethically. The Corporate Social Responsibility is the more general term for the corporations basic values, while the Code of Conduct is the actual plan used to qualify and ensure safe and ethical operations.
What are the benefits of implementing a Code of Conduct program?
It is extremely important to have at least a basic Code of Conduct program, to not be completely in the dark about the state of your suppliers or operations, especially if your facilities or suppliers comes under scrutiny by a third party. Having a basic Code of Conduct program in place is often also a requirement from customers, and required for many ISO-certifications.
Also if your clients are from the public sector, it’s a requirement that you have a basic Code of Conduct program in place to show that operations are handled in line with human rights, labor law, rules and regulations and so forth.
Practically speaking, a basic Code of Conduct program also helps to stabilize your supply chain; it works as a basic supplier qualification as well. If a supplier cannot put up adequate emergency exit signs for instance, that serves as an indication that you are dealing with a high-risk supplier that probably will give you lots of trouble down the line with other things as well, such as quality control or delivery times. Once your suppliers comply with your basic Code of Conduct program, you have weeded out the bad suppliers, developed strong ties with the good ones, and made sure that they run a serious operation, lessening the risk in your supply chain.
What kind of CSR work did you do in Sweden?
Our CSR and Code of Conduct work in Sweden could deal with anything from company processes for handling hazardous chemicals, or ensuring that salaries where paid according to contracts, to enforcing worker’s rights within the food and beverage industry.
How did your sights set on China and what challenges do you think you will face here in terms of Code of Conduct and CSR?
Code of Conduct has a different significance in China; it is one thing to create CSR directives from the main office in Sweden or in Europe, but quite another to really implement those directives at a Chinese sub-supplier. And that work; to bridge the gap between a main office in Sweden and a supplier in China, is the bread and butter of Code of Conduct work.
Specific problems is that the legislation sometimes differ between Europe and UN’s global compact and China, and that you thus need to modify CSR-goals and standards to fit the Chinese way of conducting business, without compromising your company’s ethical framework. But the fact remains that some standards and CSR directives cannot be implemented without breaking local labor laws and regulations. In such cases, you cannot be too stubborn; instead you need to find solutions and compromises, that also the interesting challenge of implementing Western standards in China.
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