This article was originally published in the April 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, my union's newspaper.
"Our factory was bought up by a capitalist. They got everything and paid next to nothing for it. They said that government policy allows it. They got the lot! They promised capital infusions, higher wages, new products, new projects - but none materialized. The police protected the capitalists! But the capitalists are the ones with all the power…workers only have their fists…hundreds of migrants were hired at 50 yuan a day to beat up the workers."
-anonymous Chinese worker
As most Western workers are keenly aware, China has experienced tremendous economic growth in recent decades, averaging more than 9% annually for nearly the past 30 years. We see the effects of that growth on our own shores in the form of an ever-widening trade imbalance (the U.S.-China trade deficit rose to $202 billion in 2005), a steady loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ubiquitous "Made in China" labels on the consumer products we buy. But what has this rapid growth meant for Chinese workers?
Since the late 1970s, China has been restructuring its economy more towards a model of privatizing state-owned enterprises, opening up to foreign capital, and dismantling the welfare state; what has been referred to as "neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics." This restructuring has led to unprecedented economic opportunity for some, but has been accompanied by deterioration of job security and basic economic rights, staggering income inequality, and dangerous levels of pollution. In addition, Chinese factories have become synonymous with sweatshops, and independent investigations have routinely uncovered 90+ hour work-weeks, abusive management, below-subsistence wages, wage arrears, and exposure to occupational diseases such as silicosis experienced by Chinese jewelry workers. Under this new model, factory owners can rely upon lax enforcement of existing labor laws at the local level, and have done their part to undermine worker solidarity and evade closer scrutiny. Commonly-cited company tactics include hiring workers through employment agencies, pitting workers from different regions or ethnic groups against one another, targeting potential militants, fines and illegally withholding wages, and false record-keeping.
Under conditions such as these, one would hope that workers, especially workers long-inculcated with a Marxist analysis of capitalism, might have recourse in the form of a fighting union. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Not only is China’s sole union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), largely viewed as ineffectual and pro-management, most private sector workers are not even represented. Perhaps most egregiously, neither independent labor organizing nor the right to strike has been protected under Chinese law and has in fact been brutally repressed. A few Hong Kong-based pro-labor NGOs have maintained online listings of dozens of Chinese activists who are currently incarcerated (some for twenty years to life) for organizing outside the confines of the ACFTU.
It appears that many Chinese workers are caught in an ever-tightening vise grip between unsympathetic and repressive elements within their own government, a weak and unrepresentative workers’ organization, and the forces of international economics. In particular, two groups of Chinese workers have borne the brunt of this assault perhaps more fully than most: migrant laborers (disproportionately young women) and workers who have retired or been laid off from formerly State-Run Enterprises (SREs). As foreign investment has flooded China's manufacturing sector and privately-owned workplaces have replaced the socialist danwei, or work unit model of production, up to 200 million rural Chinese have migrated to the cities in search of employment and a better way of life. Many of these workers haven't been provided with legally-required labor contracts by their bosses and aren't officially registered in their new residences; hence they have been more susceptible to abuse and less able to effect recourse or access public services.
Meanwhile, nearly 40 million former SRE workers had been laid off by 2001, often leaving them with only a meager and temporary unemployment compensation package. The dismantling of the danwei system and its impact on these workers cannot be understated, as the former SREs were an essential staple of the pre-reform economy. They provided workers with not only secure employment and a meaningful, well-respected role in Chinese society, but also basic amenities such as housing and health care. In both instances the ACFTU's frequent silence on issues of worker wellbeing while instead "educating" workers to support the government's reforms has highlighted where the union’s true accountability lies.
With few other options open to them, these groups have resorted to the same strategy as beleaguered workers elsewhere: direct action, and at a startling rate. According to official government statistics, 3.76 million Chinese took part in 74,000 "mass incidents of unrest" in 2004, rising to 87,000 "incidents" in 2005. That’s 200+ demonstrations per day, and a six-fold increase over the number recorded in 1993. The motivations behind such protests vary widely, including environmental injustices and local government corruption, but many of them are in direct response to employer abuses and other economic concerns.
One factory in Dongguan, which had been criticized by China Labor Watch since at least 2001, was recently "victim" to this worker outrage. Tired of forced-overtime and below-subsistence wages, these workers decided that their livelihood was more important than the Happy Meal toys they were producing and took to the streets. In the open conflict that followed, more than 1,000 workers clashed with security personnel and destroyed company property until riot police regained control of the factory. A separate incident in a Xianyang textile factory in 2004 involved as many as 7,000 former SRE workers. These workers took pre-emptive action when a new majority shareholder of their factory proposed changes that would affect wages, seniority rights, and working conditions. After their initial efforts to form a worker-run branch of the ACFTU were rejected by union officials they waged a six-week, 24-hour a day picket line. This action brought them into direct conflict with local authorities who attempted to forcibly break the strike and arrest its leadership.
Such large-scale and highly-charged direct actions present an apparent paradox with the notion of an authoritarian society. Yet it has been observed that some Chinese authorities exhibit significant "class consciousness" in their responses to worker unrest. For instance, protests by retired and unemployed workers are treated more delicately than those which actually threaten to halt production. In addition, authorities seem much more willing to tolerate unrest when it involves only one factory or industrial sector, but respond with brutal efficiency if these actions begin to draw wider support from the public or other sectors.
Still, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has genuine cause for concern. The CCP’s legitimacy as a tightly-controlled, monopolistic ruling party that supposedly represents workers’ interests stems largely from its ability to deliver the goods in the form of an increasing standard of living for the citizenry. At the same time that it is facing growing, dangerous levels of unrest, the CCP is also in a weaker position in terms of its control over the economy--thanks largely to the very reform policies it has adopted in the name of economic growth. To address these concerns, the government has sought to upgrade its existing labor laws and to strengthen the role of the ACFTU in the nation’s workplaces. Recent developments on these fronts are instructive.
In a move last summer that took many by surprise, Wal-Mart’s China division announced that it would facilitate the establishment of ACFTU branches at each of its 60 stores, covering around 30,000 "associates." Why would a company that is internationally-recognized for its labor rights violations and aggressive union-busting voluntarily unionize all of its stores? One of China’s many under-enforced labor laws states that if even a single employee expresses an interest in being a member of the union, then a branch must be set up in that workplace. In what some consider an opening bid to unionize all foreign-owned companies, the government apparently decided that the time was right to begin enforcing this law. Despite long-standing attempts to resist unionization, Wal-Mart didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing and likely recognized that it would be much more prudent to make nice with ACFTU officials early on. Notably, the changes apply only to Wal-Mart’s retail employees and not the Chinese manufacturing companies that make up 80% of Wal-Mart’s suppliers.
In another much-publicized development, China’s National People’s Congress has in recent months drafted new legislation which will affect important issues such as the ACFTU’s collective bargaining rights, control over factory rules, and job security, among others. Further, the draft legislation could raise the stakes significantly for companies that continue to violate the country’s labor laws. This aspect of the legislation will be key, and underlies long-standing difficulties in enforcing central government policies—especially those related to labor and environment—that may be perceived as inhibiting economic growth. As an old Chinese idiom notes, "Tian gao, huangdi yuan," or "heaven is high and the emperor is far away."
Apparently the bosses, thoroughly dismayed at these reform efforts, have been exercising a bit of direct action themselves as of late. As an academic and organizer of a recent conference to discuss the proposed legislative changes recounted:
"We should keep alert on the intention to destroy the labor law. During the conference, some people want to replace labor law with corporate social responsibility and criticize labor law with [Human Resource Management] theory. What’s more, someone from [American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai office] led more than 20 human resource managers of US enterprises to crash into our conference room, threatening us that they would withdraw capital if we would not revise the draft according to their demands. I was angry about that…" While an official from the Chamber office later denied that these "protesters" were actually Chamber agents, there is no denying that both the American and European Chambers have been actively trying to shape the government’s reforms to suit their own interests. Sadly, the ACFTU has not waged a grassroots campaign to counter their influence.
With regards to both the new labor law and the unionization drive, the CCP is working to either appease the angry masses or to at least channel their frustrations into State-controlled institutions, thereby reasserting its role in managing the economy while also maintaining social order. Noticeably however, an approach the government has not tried is to allow Chinese workers significantly greater latitude to take matters into their own hands. This model of governance fits into an overall pattern characterized as "consultative Leninism" by China scholar Richard Baum: "By substituting paternalistic consultation for autonomous political participation, cooptation for representation, advice for empowerment, and consensus-building for the clash of conflicting interests, the CCP has arguably been able to avoid much of the putative clutter and chaos of democratic pluralism."
There are differing opinions amongst labor scholars as to whether the barriers to a true workers’ movement in China are insurmountable, at least for the immediate future. Clearly though, workers need and deserve a greater degree of political freedom in order to collectively advance their interests, and either reclaim or perhaps even replace existing structures that have failed them. It is shameful though sadly unsurprising that there has not been greater pressure from the West for China to "open up" to more than just foreign capital flows. Yet this strategic inaction reminds us that workers in both industrialized nations and elsewhere must strengthen and unify our struggles against the bosses, who are working ever harder to realize their own economic vision not only at home, but abroad. As noted in a recent issue of Asian Labour Update, "…there is virtually no voice on this issue from any international trade union expressing solidarity with the Chinese workers in fighting for better labour rights by denouncing or condemning the foreign business bodies publicly." So we must speak out where others cannot in order to advance both our interests.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that the Chinese government is not a monolithic whole and that there are factions which are speaking out ever more loudly on behalf of workers from within the system. Some observers express optimism that these advocates, coupled with the reforms underway, will in fact better the situation of Chinese workers. Anita Chan, a labor scholar at the Australian National University, suggests that the ACFTU is struggling to redefine its role within an economy and society that is dramatically different from the one in which it was created. She warns that any strategy which further isolates the ACFTU will only undermine genuine efforts to improve the livelihood of Chinese workers and that international unions should instead work with the ACFTU to help build its capacity.
Yet perhaps our most efficacious avenue for building solidarity with Chinese workers lies in forming relationships with the NGOs and independent workers’ organizations who are striving to advance workers’ rights. Many of the more "radical" of these organizations have apparently found it conducive to locate their offices in Hong Kong; due to the "one country, two systems" approach that the CCP agreed to upon reclaiming Hong Kong from the U.K., there is significantly greater freedom of expression there. Most of these organizations also have operations on the mainland and monitor developments there quite closely, produce regular and informative publications, and even organize campaigns against particular corporations or on behalf of workers in specific industries. These organizations not only need our expressions of solidarity and participation in their campaigns, due to the severe lack of an NGO-infrastructure they also need more direct support.
China is without a doubt a nation on the rise, and what happens within its borders will have profound implications for the entire planet for generations to come. Rising labor, land, and energy costs coupled with the government’s emphasis on becoming an "innovation society" may indicate that China’s days as the maker of Happy Meal toys are numbered. The government continues to make significant investments in education and scientific/technological development, and increasingly it is not just bottom-of-the-barrel manufacturing firms that are seeking to set up shop on the mainland. China was one of the only developing nations to participate in the Human Genome Project, for instance, and is also making sizable allocations towards research in the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology.
Whether all of these developments taken together will in fact help to raise China’s standard of living while building a "harmonious" society remains to be seen. While no one can predict exactly what the outcome will be, a growing number of academics, politicians, and bosses are watching the numbers and hedging their bets. People who hold genuine concern for our planet and its inhabitants have no such luxury, however. For us, the path is clear, and we must heed the simple yet sage advice of Gandhi, "The future depends on what we do in the present."
*"China Drafts Law to Empower Unions and End Labor Abuse" October 13, 2006,
By DAVID BARBOZA (NYT); Business/Financial Desk
*Adam Greene, NYT Letter to the Editor, 10/13/06
*"No Labor Shift Seen at Wal-Mart" By Abigail Goldman and Don Lee; The Los Angeles Times; 11 August 2006
*"Government pledges to get serious about labour rights" in China Development Brief ‘01
*" Wal-Mart Wins Ruling on Foreign Labor" NYT 12-19-06
*NYT August 26, 2006 "Rising Production Costs Join the List of What China Exports"
*" Official Union in China Says All Wal-Marts Are Organized" By DAVID LAGUE; NYT 10/13/06
*"Chinese Workers Protest at Factory Making Toys for McDonald's" NYT July 28, 2006
*"BUSH REJECTS CHINA INQUIRY" NYT BUSINESS BRIEFS July 22, 2006
*"A.F.L.-C.I.O. Files a Trade Complaint Against China's Labor Practices" NYT June 9, 2006
*"Hotel Worker's Murder at Work Leads to Thousands-Strong Protest Signaling Deep Discontent with Widespread Corruption and Impunity in China" from http://asianfoodworker.net/china/070125dazhu.htm 1-25-07
*website of Institute of Contemporary Observation
*"A SHARP DEBATE ERUPTS IN CHINA OVER IDEOLOGIES" NYT March 12, 2006
*"CHINESE WOMEN WORKERS ORGANIZE IN THE EXPORT ZONE" in New Labor Forum, Spring 2006; Jenny Wai-ling Chan
*"Is there a labour movement in China?" John Chen, June ’06 issue of "Asian Labour Update"
*"A new class war is brewing in China" June ’06 issue of "Asian Labour Update" Apo Leong
*"Causes, Implementation, and Consequences of Xiagang" June ’06 issue of "Asian Labour Update" Apo Leong and John Chen
*The Worldwatch Institute’s "State of the World 2006"
*"A Second Attempt at Looking for Mickey Mouse’s Conscience: A Survey of the Working Conditions of Disney’s Supplier Factories in China." 12/06 report by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior.
*"Falling Through the Floor: Migrant Women Workers’ Quest for Decent Work in Dongguan, China" September 2006 by the China Labour Bulletin
*"Hivac Startech Film Window (Shenzhen) Co., Ltd., An Investigative Report on Labor Conditions." 8/23/06 report by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior
*Woodrow Wilson Center, Asia Program Special Report, June 2006, "China and Democracy: A Contradiction in Terms?"
*Woodrow Wilson Center, Asia Program Special Report, September 2004, "ACTIVE SOCIETY IN FORMATION: ENVIRONMENTALISM, LABOR, AND UNDERWORLD IN CHINA"
* COMPETITION & CHANGE, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 2005 181–200. "Globalization and Paradoxes of Ethical Transnational Production: Code of Conduct in a Chinese Workplace" by NGAI-LING SUM1 and PUN NGAI