Editors’ note: This is the fifth piece of the series “In and Out of Japan.”
In 2003, the first Japanese-staffed call center opened in Dalian, a north-eastern city of six million people dubbed China’s “Green Silicon Valley.” Thousands of Japanese workers have served consumers across Sino-Japanese borders, alongside their bilingual Chinese colleagues. They are recruited in Japan and sent to Dalian’s IT parks in one of the country’s oldest and largest high-tech zones. Due to their status as employees of local subsidiaries, they are paid in the local currency at, or even below, the Japanese minimum wage level. But their experience complicates the image of offshore call center workers as “cyber coolies” in the “new colonialism” of digital outsourcing.
The offshoring of Japanese workers to Dalian has evolved into an innovative response to raising cost pressures in deflationary Japan. The Japanese “local hires” are tasked with setting up a new call center, training the local workforce, and liaising with headquarters and subsidiaries elsewhere—all of which were previously the responsibility of expensive yen-earning expatriates on rotational transfers. As the workers gain knowledge and experience, they can be sent back to Japan on short-term “overseas” assignments.
For the workers themselves, the jobs in Dalian provide a chance to work abroad without special qualifications or foreign language proficiency. Underlying the decision to go to Dalian, a city they’d barely heard of, was their deep dissatisfaction with the tightening labor market conditions under long-term recession. One 35-year-old male worker who quit his property sales job to work in China said, “Back then, 95 percent of my life was work, and I wanted more time for myself.” He and other Japanese workers I spoke with during my fieldwork enjoy a higher economic and social status in Dalian than the average local worker.
They are particularly proud of their employment at large multinational companies, many of which are on Fortune’s Global 500 list. The Japanese migrant community is well catered to by the strong presence of bilingual Chinese service providers, a legacy of the city’s history as a major commercial powerhouse under imperial Japan’s colonial rule. For the call center workers, Dalian is a refuge from the confines of the Japanese workplaces where hard work reaps neither adequate material nor psychological rewards.
In the globalizing digital economy, things change rapidly, and Dalian’s success in digital outsourcing might be causing its own demise. The rising wage levels of the local workforce are causing foreign investors to look elsewhere, including South East Asia and notably, Japan. The Chinese government is also introducing measures to curb the entry of skilled migrants to provide jobs for its own growing middle classes. Such changes are heightening the sense among the Japanese that their relative privilege in Dalian is fundamentally unstable. Some return to Japan, others try their luck in emerging outsourcing hubs such as the Philippines, yet others stay put for the moment. Their experiences provide us snapshots of the tug of war between global capital and digital labor, and its impact on mobility in and out of Japan.
Kumiko Kawashima is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Macquarie University. Her research interests include labour and consumption in post-industrial society, identity, and social change. Her recent publications include “Service Outsourcing and Labour Mobility in a Digital Age: Transnational Linkages between Japan and Dalian, China,” Global Networks.