In the Yangtze River Delta town of Kunshan, those still working in some major plants, including a Foxconn facility that assembles an array of Apple products, said they had worked less overtime than last year.
"This year was pretty bleak for Foxconn," said Du Xiaoying, Manager of Hongda Labor Dispatch, one of a dozen or so tiny employment agencies across the street from the Foxconn factory. "They did not offer much overtime."
The giant factory would not close for Lunar New Year holiday until Jan. 25, though, Du and other nearby employers said.
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"Around Chinese New Year we hire less, but more during July-August to prepare for the high season," said Foxconn Group spokesman Louis Woo, referring to the firm's hiring at its various production facilities, not just in Kunshan.
"Speaking in terms of the whole of last year, we hired more than the previous year, and our revenue was also higher."
Tentative signs of recovery in the United States and Europe have not yet translated into a sustained upsurge in consumer demand and confidence, meaning orders to Chinese factories may remain smaller and patchier.
Interviews with half a dozen factory bosses and suppliers suggested that certain sectors, including construction materials and low-end, labor intensive industries such as toys and textiles, seem to be struggling more.
"Besides high-end electronics, the situation is bad. Toys are bad, clothing too in terms of orders," said Danny Lau, the honorary chairman of Hong Kong's Small and Medium Enterprises Association whose members run thousands of China factories.
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One increasingly severe long-term challenge for Chinese manufacturing has been its shifting labor market demographics as more, better paid jobs inland mean fewer younger people migrating to coastal industrial hubs in search of factory work.
In the Pearl and Yangtze River Deltas, some expect the labor market to tighten even more after the Lunar New Year, representing a potential bottleneck for factories with fresh orders but not enough workers to cope.
"Orders aren't the biggest problem. The biggest difficulty is workers," said He Songping, a maker of plastic Christmas trees in Yiwu. "Wages have been rising by 20-30 percent a year, while the number of workers is shrinking."
Ben Schwall, President of Systems Technology Group, which exports lighting fixtures and works with around 25 factories in China, estimates since the start of January 80 percent of them have had problems with workers leaving early for Lunar New Year.
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"They're saying: 'You know what? I can come back here any time, and I know you're going to re-hire me," he said. "'And if you don't the guy across the street's going to hire me, and that's if I even choose to come back'."