The Telegraph
Thursday , February 14 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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The provincial capital, Harbin, famous for its ice festival, may soon have young, educated men — computer-science majors or even master’s degree-holders — sweeping its streets. A recent advertisement put out by the administration for 457 jobs — including those of street-cleaners, drivers and car mechanics — drew over 11,000 applications. Forty one per cent of them were from university graduates, 29 per cent from post-graduates.

The reasons are the same as in India — high unemployment among the educated (one in 11 graduates had been jobless for a year, a 2012 survey showed), and the security of a government job. Many applicants were young graduates who had worked off and on in jobs which neither matched their education nor gave them a satisfactory salary. Tired of job-hopping, disillusioned with the worth of their degree, they felt the stability offered by becoming a “staff member of a government organisation” outweighed the “loss of face” that cleaning streets with a broom would bring. The perks include a city hukou or residence permit, which guarantees the benefits of citizenship such as subsidized education and a pension. The Harbin jobs came with a bonus: the promise of a management position after three years, for outstanding work.

But getting these jobs was tough. A street-cleaner’s job in Harbin requires an entrance examination and an interview. Promptly, one company decided to train job applicants for a fee of 580 yuan. But these were resourceful college graduates, they could learn on their own. One of them simply bought the preparation material for 25 yuan and offered to share them online.

Of Harbin’s 8,000 sanitation workers, 62 per cent are over 50 and 23 per cent over 70. Less than 10 per cent are educated beyond high school. Excited at the new crop at their disposal, the authorities are determined not to let them go. They have drawn up a five-year contract; anyone breaking it loses all benefits.

For the nation

The sad thing is that the rainbow these youngsters are chasing doesn’t have a huge pot of gold at the end of it. The only street-cleaner to get all the mandatory benefits in Harbin earns only 2,200 yuan per month, after 18 years of being on her feet from 4 am to 1 pm everyday. Yet, she looks forward to her pension, and considers herself lucky after seeing temporary street-cleaners, who earn only 1,600 yuan, return to their villages virtually empty-handed when they get too old to work. One survey revealed that government workers got twice as much pension as private sector workers. No wonder even drivers earning 5,000 yuan per month were applying to drive Harbin government vehicles.

But imagine looking at a lifetime of cleaning streets after having sweated over a super-tough college entrance exam and four years of university education. Interviewed by the press, the applicants hoped their backgrounds would get them into management positions. A few of them were children of former government employees, laid off in the late 1990s under the new economic “reform” policy. In Mao’s time, the government was the only employer and jobs were for a lifetime. For such parents, thrown into the abyss after being laid off mid-career, the availability of a government job for their children was too precious an opportunity to waste. Said one mother to her reluctant 23-year-old, “Companies can go bankrupt, but how can a nation?” Sending off his application, the graduate of six months shrugged in agreement: “In the end, cleaners are still government institution employees and work for the nation.” Then he turned back to ‘Sanitation System Specialised Knowledge Problem Sets’, and questions such as “When sweeping the streets, can you push a broom?”