Retired workers in China seek extra yuan

Three in four retired Chinese workers take on jobs to supplement inadequate pensions.

An elderly Chinese woman carrying bags walks down the street in Liuzhou, China.
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BEIJING // The luxury cars, gleaming shopping centres and high-end apartments provide brash evidence of the Chinese capital's rush into the modern world, but in their shadow toils a grey workforce that has missed out on the economic boom. These are the pensioners who need to keep on working to get by.

They are easy to spot. Some fish through waste bins looking for anything with value or stand quietly at subway entrances collecting newspapers from commuters. Others sell drinks to tourists for two yuan (Dh1.15) apiece. Others set up tiny stalls on the pavement hawking insoles for shoes.

Guo Yutian is one such elderly worker. As tourists snap pictures at the back of the Forbidden City, the sprightly 84-year-old widower instead looks out for plastic bottles to collect and sell for recycling.

"I do this to get some exercise, and to earn some money to buy vegetables and other food," said the former petrol station worker.

Mr Guo can sometimes find about 100 bottles during the two hours or so he spends collecting them each day. He makes around 0.12 yuan per bottle, which in a month translates to 200 to 300 yuan to supplement his modest pension.

Studies have indicated that more than three-quarters of China's elderly people take additional work after they retire, a figure that ties in with research published last month in the China Journal of Social Work that said only a quarter of elderly Chinese people received a pension.

Many older workers were laid off when state enterprises shed workers during reforms in the 1990s. With few or no qualifications, they had little chance of competing with the younger generation in what was becoming a free market for workers, a far cry from the times when the Communist state assigned people to jobs.

Ma Shuhua, a 76-year-old widow, finds it "very hard" to get by on her pension, the size of which she is too embarrassed to reveal. Her expenses include a monthly rent of 1,300 yuan.

"I don't have enough money for living, so I have no choice. I have to work to earn some money," she said, standing beside the tricycle from which she sells bottles of water and soft drinks in central Beijing. She sets up shop in an area busy with passing tourists and can make 200 yuan a day.

Ben Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the City University of Hong Kong who researches issues affecting elderly people, said those who did not hold senior or government jobs were especially likely to have little pension provision.

"We see old adults who may have very difficult financial circumstances," he said.

It may be harder for old people today to rely on their children to look after them than in the past. Mr Li said the traditional notions of filial piety, the ideas of respecting and caring for elders that stem from the teachings of the ancient philosopher Confucius, were not necessarily weakening in modern China. But the increasing mobility of workers meant it was not possible for many children to look after their parents.

There are, however, believed to be benefits to working into old age.

"When people talk about successful ageing, they are interested in whether old adults get engaged with life. That's one of the successful components," he said.

"Even going out and collecting bottles would be better than sitting at home, although older adults who collect bottles may not lead a good life financially."

China's grey workforce seems likely to expand, because the number of over 60s is predicted to grow from 178 million now to 200 million in 2015 and 400 million in 2050.

It is against this backdrop that calls have been made for the retirement age, typically 50 or 55 for women and 60 for men, to be increased.

The official retirement age already means little for many.

Liu Yuhua, 72, makes about 20 to 30 yuan a day selling bottles of water, also from the back of a tricycle, a useful addition to her monthly 500 yuan pension and one that helps pay for her high blood pressure medications. She said she did not mind the work.

"It's OK for me to come outside and enjoy the life here. When I stay at home, it's such a small place. I am happy to come out and see people," she said.