My Beijing gym

Just a day or two ago I wrote about the company in Guangdong that paid its employees in counterfeit bills and fired those who dared complain. I started by saying how living in Beijing, you forget these things happen. But they happen in Beijing, too, only usually we don’t hear about them.

When I went to the gym today (no snickering) to meet my personal trainer, he seemed really stressed, which is unlike him. Trainer X is usually a calm, laid-back guy, often with a Zen-like expression of peace on his face. Not today. This is my fourth month of working with him, and today for the first time he began to talk on a very personal level, telling me how upset he was with his job. He told me his salary was 1,000 RMB a month, and that the trainers make their money by selling their services, which is nothing unusual. What was unusual, he said, was that he and the other trainers hadn’t been paid their commission money for more than three months and that he was at the end of his financial rope.

This wasn’t told in a way that was gossipy or bitter. Just matter of fact and despondent. He told me about the gym manager/owner, who hired him over a year ago and has never said anything to him other than “Ni hao.”

“He has never talked with us, never held a meeting, never asked how we were doing or what our plans are for the future. It’s like he is in another world. And now we don’t know what to do, because the trainers have brought in hundreds of thousands of RMB and we aren’t seeing any of it. There is so much skimming and so many unethical practices, you wouldn’t believe it.”

He told me he was quitting and had already decided where he wanted to go. And I told him that I’d follow him (he is as great as a trainer can ever be).

It was a shock, hearing him talk about anything other than the exercise program and the usual chit-chat. He looked overwhelmed with sadness, something I would never have expected to see. And as he told me his story, I kept thinking of the little post I put up about the fake RMB and how perhaps I had fooled myself about Beijing, thinking the outrages only happened in the factory and mining towns. I know, as outrages go this isn’t that heartbreaking or evil, but we’re talking about a very popular place frequented by expats and white collar workers in the Central Business District and, well, I just had the naive impression such places had adopted the practices of the modern-day business world. (They certainly charge like a Western gym.) And who knows, maybe all the other businesses in Beijing are well managed and fair to their employees, and my gym is simply the glaring exception.

I was debating citing the name of the gym in my headline and then decided not to, only to avoid causing Trainer X any trouble, even though he said he was quitting. But oh, it was tempting.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

I really feel for these – the down trodden victims – of modern China. Unfortunately there are still many people in positions of power that don’t deserve it, because of guanxi or whatever, but slowly they are getting what they deserve and things are getting better, I am sure of it.

May 13, 2007 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

is it the same gym i go to????

May 13, 2007 @ 7:56 pm | Comment

Chris, do you go to the “Darwin gym”?

May 13, 2007 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

4 seasons, in tuan jie hu.

May 13, 2007 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

pshaaaw! How dare all of you speak so lowly of the world’s next superpower, oldest and greatest continuous society and earth and guardians of heaven led by big commie all migh T!

It is obvious that this trainer’s capitalisit endeavors aren’t correct enough, nor is his pure chinese thinking or correct usage of the three represents.

May 13, 2007 @ 11:38 pm | Comment

Doesn’t happen in Beijing? CCTV staff have been known to go for months without pay. Of course it happens in Beijing! You’re never likely to have a heart-to-heart with the woman at the supermarket cash-till or the guy filling the shelves. But if you did, and they’ve been working there long enough, I guarantee they’d tell you about the times they haven’t been paid. It’s endemic. A company or unit has a cash-flow problem? Don’t pay the workers. Problem solved.

But I have a better solution. Each time the dead goat makes one of his racist-disguised-as-concern comments, he pays a Chinese worker. The Gini coefficient will be lowered in no time.

May 14, 2007 @ 4:55 am | Comment

“pshaaaw! How dare all of you speak so lowly of the world’s next superpower, oldest and greatest continuous society and earth and guardians of heaven led by big commie all migh T!

It is obvious that this trainer’s capitalisit endeavors aren’t correct enough, nor is his pure chinese thinking or correct usage of the three represents.”

America is worthless garbage.

That said, how is his boss getting away with not paying? I’ve been hearing about certain companies contracting foreingers to do translation jobs and simply not paying them as well.

May 14, 2007 @ 5:10 am | Comment

Richard, if you think the trainer is being straight with you, you could always organize a foreigner boycott of the gym.

On the other hand, on the grand list of China crusades you could undertake, this may be fairly low.

May 14, 2007 @ 10:12 am | Comment

Will, it’s simply not awful enough for me to devote a lot of energy to it. The positive side is that this guy has alternatives and can leave. It’s the ones who are stuck with no choices who I really worry about.

May 14, 2007 @ 11:33 am | Comment

The funny thing is, I think at least part of the mgmt or ownership team is non-Chinese…

May 14, 2007 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

It’s not just Chinese workers. Not including the deluge of uninformed, unqualified kids who come to China for ESL and get screwed over (TANSTAAFL kids, remember TANSTAAFL), I now at least two different people, Caucasion British, who have gotten screwed out of commissions.

May 14, 2007 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

In fact, I am not surprise. I also have that kind of stories in my bag.
My hairdresser told me that he got his job by paying 2 month-deposit to the owner of the hairsaloon. After one year as employee, he would get it back but one year passed and the owner told him that if he wants to stay working here he shall keep the deposit. I forgot to mention that the owner is well-known in Beijing and that my hairdresser told me that it is common practice to pay a deposit for a job. Other similar stories?

May 14, 2007 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

“Other similar stories?”

Millions. Chinese entrepreneurs do love their deposits. How difficult is it for them to give up that which they cherish above all else?

If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you know the answer.

May 14, 2007 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

I’ve heard of this many times, and seen it at one company I worked at – there were fellow staff members who weren’t paid for *six months* – but because they had ties to the company founder, they felt too embarassed to quit. In the end one of them faked going to hospital, went back to his hometown for two weeks, changed his phone number, and then got another job.

May 15, 2007 @ 12:16 am | Comment

Sadly, I think these practices are actually pretty common everywhere in China, including the big shiny cities.

One of my Chinese colleagues signed a contract with my employer (also Chinese), stipulating that she would receive a bonus if she stayed for a year.

When the end of the year arrived and she asked about her bonus, the boss told her she would only get it if she signed a new contract for another year. Of course, she didn’t, and of course, she was cheated out of her bonus.

When anyone talks about the potential military threat of China, I always respond that IMO Chinese business ethics (along with wanton environmental devastation) pose a much greater threat.

Globalization means that there is now a much more direct connection between greedy Chinese bosses holding down costs by cheating workers, and laid off western workers.

Now, if only American consumers could wake up to this connection.

May 15, 2007 @ 7:19 am | Comment

the other side of these bonuses and deposits is how hard it is for an employer to get any loyalty out of his/her employees.

In my last company in Beijing, January was the busiest month for employees leaving. It was also the month that annual bonuses got handed out.

I guess, but don’t know, that the deposit scheme works in the same way.

May 15, 2007 @ 1:26 pm | Comment

Ah, only just looked back at this thread. i see Romain Guerel mentioned deposits and asked for similar stories – and Mike pointed out another side. Well, Beijing Review used to demand deposits from their foreign staff. Most people grumbled, but paid up anyway, but one didn’t. He made a stand and took it to the end. They finally told him he had to go, but he’d kept his principles. But what were those principles? Just before he left Beijing, he told me he’d never intended to honor his contract in the first place. A year? He’d always planned to skip out after a couple of months.

May 17, 2007 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

Now he knows what the Enron employees felt like… Workers show up to emptied office was rampant in the 80’s in America.

This ain’t a China thing.

May 18, 2007 @ 8:15 am | Comment

Charles, with all due respect, you’re an idiot. Really. The way Chinese treat employees compared to America is night and day. Enron became a national scandal because it was so shocking, so unbelievable. Here, this story won’t raise a single eyebrow because it is the norm. America still treats many laborers like shit, but there is no comparison with China. We never pay with counterfeit currency or refuse to pay employees at all. American companies that run sweatshops where employees’ fingers are frequently sliced off face hefty fines, media exposure, lawsuits and worse. So f*cking typical to point to one incident and say, “See, it’s the same in America.” The same thing happens whenever the TS “incident” is discussed (“What about Kent State!”) and the Cultural Revolution (“The US killed Indians!”) and anything else. You’re analogy is wrong, your thinking sloppy and your ideology embarrassingly clear. If employees in America don’t get paid their commissions they can go to court, call the newspapers and hold a strike.

As an update, my trainer read this post and showed it to many of the staff working there, and it was appreciated.

May 19, 2007 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

A friend of mine here in Taipei wasn’t paid for months by the tv station she worked for. In the end she quit and got another job. An American friend had to wait for months to get paid for a translation he did, for the government even. Charles is right that it’s not just a China thing, but it is much, much worse in China than in other places. Hope your gym guy gets out well.

May 22, 2007 @ 1:53 pm | Comment

Ah, someone in Taiwan also wasn’t paid. China’s labor practices are just like everywhere else.

May 22, 2007 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

Please, small business vaproize in US all the time and employee are left holding the bag without pay.

So much for your “we never”.

And go read some news in Chinese. I for one have seen reports of employee suing employer for wage and win in China.

And treatment of employee? In America undocumented workers get sh!t on with jokes like “Hose-A/Hose-B” all the time.

May 23, 2007 @ 7:12 am | Comment

Bullshit Charles. You go to jail if you dont pay your employees. If a company goes under and vaporizes, maybe some employess get stuck without their last paycheck or lose benefits, but that’s it. And it’s very rare. I worked for a dot-com that vaporized, and we all got our last paychecks, as did all my colleagues in other companies. We can sue and we can go to the media. You are staggeringloy ignorant. And I know some employees in China have sued and won, but the numbers are incredibly insignificant. You’re a pure BSer and I’m getting tired of you fast. At least Math and Hong Xing are amusing.

May 23, 2007 @ 8:07 am | Comment

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