The fight for labour rights in China’s cities
Brutal oppression of workers underlies China’s economic boom, writes Tim Shepherd
In mid-afternoon on 20 November labour activist Huang Qingnan was chatting to a friend outside his local shop in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, one of the epicentres of China’s spectacular economic growth.
Out of the blue, two young men approached, one armed with a machete. In the ensuing melée, Huang was slashed so badly that doctors expect him to lose the use of his leg.
Huang runs a centre which dispenses services to workers who are in dispute with their employers. His legal advice, offered on a “pay what you can” basis, to workers chasing unpaid wages or compensation for work injuries has made him powerful enemies among factory bosses and various “interested parties”.
The labour arm of China’s growing civil rights movement is known simply as “wei quan” or, literally, “to uphold rights”. People involved in it face a rising level of attacks.
On 13 November another labour rights activist, Li Jinxin, was attacked by thugs and remains in hospital as a result. The violence haunts and underpins the Chinese “economic miracle”, which has produced one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the world.
Li helped out at a law firm specialising in labour rights work. He was kidnapped and both his legs were broken in a vicious and prolonged beating after meeting a “client” outside the offices.
China’s rise as the “world’s factory” has been largely based on the exploitation of over 100 million internal migrants leaving poor rural areas to work in the factories and building sites of prosperous East China.
Their residential status in the cities is similar to Germany’s “guest workers”. They are only allowed to stay in urban areas while they are in work.
If a rural migrant is picked up by the police without the relevant papers he or she is transported home – usually via a 15-day spell in detention. It’s an arrangement that the bosses have found conducive to keeping wages low and workers on the defensive.
Huang, Li and other activists have been concentrating on publicising the contents of the new Labour Contract Law that will come into force on 1 January next year. One of its positive features is that it will make it more difficult for employers to dismiss workers.
The law was passed despite fierce and sustained opposition from multinationals led by the American Chamber of Commerce, who threatened capital flight.
A compromise draft was eventually approved by the National People’s Congress – China’s non-elected parliament – with the bosses reassured by the certainty that implementation will be lax, not least because China’s only legal trade union is constitutionally and legally bound to uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
While this link gives the organisation considerable leverage in law drafting, the union has barely any influence on the shop floor. Local government officials frequently find common interest with capitalists and ensure that enterprise-level trade unions are run by management or their stooges.
The rare instances of union officials speaking out on behalf of workers usually leads to their being sacked or transferred. Workers who organise outside the traditional union structures face arrest and imprisonment.
Although there is no protection of the right to strike in China and freedom of association is banned, there has been a marked increase in strike activity, as workers have made good use of recent labour shortages and a growing awareness of workers’ rights to demand a living wage paid on time.
Independent unions are banned, but workers often form hometown associations that are sometimes capable of organising strikes. Occasions where these associations unite in strike action are increasing.
Since 2004, the Shenzhen government has twice been forced to raise the minimum wage to calm the militant atmosphere. Workers are also more likely to take employers to court and this has resulted in some important victories.
The latest attacks on labour activists are part of what appears to be a generalised effort by the rich and powerful to ensure that their profits are not threatened.
It is only a matter of time before an attack ends in a fatality. Activists frequently receive phone calls from anonymous thugs with the same message: “Stop helping workers to protect their rights, or we’ll chop you to death.”
Meanwhile Huang Qingnan remains in hospital facing medical fees of at least £10,000. Unions and labour organisations have arranged a solidarity fund.