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  2. Chinese Labor Laws
  3. Chinese Labor Contract Law
  4. Chinese Labor Unions
  5. All-China Federation of Trade Unions
  6. Independent Trade Unions in China
  7. Labor Discontent in China
  8. Labor Unrest in China
  9. Research on Labor Unrest in China
  10. Strikes in China
  11. Labor Protests in China
  12. Labor Revolts in China
  13. Labor Reforms in China
  14. Labor Disputes and Arbitration in China
  15. Lawsuits by Workers in China


Li Qian, head of China Labor Watch
It is ironic that a nation founded on the Communist principals of sticking up for workers now neglects them. Independent trade unions are forbidden and abused workers generally have no legal recourse. Those that stick up for their rights are sometimes beaten up by thugs. Cadres and capitalists often have very close relationships and help to enrich each other.
With companies being increasingly concerned about their image abroad they are more willing to make changes and discuss problems with labor representatives.
An international meeting on workers rights and unions organized after much painstakingly work for December 2004 was abruptly cancelled at the last minute.
Good Websites and Sources: China Labor Watch ; China Labor Bulletin ; Average Pay and Expenditures ; China Law Blog on New Labor Laws ; 2003 IMF Report on Labor Performance ; Book: Understanding Labor and Employment Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2009) ; Time magazine’s Worker’s Wasteland ; Chinese Government Paper on Labor Policy ; Gloomy Photos of Workers ; Rising Wages, Business Week Article ; New York Times Article About “Unknown Substance” Chinese Workers on Stuff Made for Americans (satire)

Chinese Labor Laws

There are laws that have been on the books since 1995 that promise workers a five-day, 40-hour work week, guarantee a minimum wage of at least $48 a week and require overtime pay for hours over 44 hours a week, and restrict overtime to 32 hours a month..
Labor laws designed to protect workers are probably ignored more than they are followed. Workers routinely work 12 hrs or more a day, often six or seven days a week. Even when authorities are aware of violations the laws are rarely enforced and when they are the punishments are light. Many factory owners skirt the laws by bribing officials. Many workers have no idea that the laws exist. Local and national labor laws are often contradictory.
It is illegal to hire workers younger than 16. Teenagers younger than that routinely borrow someone else identity card and lie about their age. It is a common practice and a neither potential employers or potential employees seems to qualms about it.
In 2006, a proposed labor law—the new Labor Contract Law— intended to address abuses, increase wages, reduce working hours to 40 hours a week and increasing overtime pay—was opposes by foreign corporations doing business in China. China’s existing labor law have already caused some foreign companies to leave China for other countries without such laws.
New labor laws implemented in 2008 requires employers to pay overtime, provide insurance and give laid off workers one month of severance pay for every year worked. The laws also make it harder to lay off workers. Credit Suisse estimates these laws add 15 percent to 20 percent to the cost of running a labor-intensive factories. The laws have also encouraged workers to stand up and fight for their rights, which in turn has encourage companies to follow the rules.
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, "Labor laws, enacted in 2008, were intended to channel worker frustrations through a system of arbitration and courts so no broader protest movements would threaten political stability. But if recent strikes and a surge in arbitration and court cases reflect a rising worker consciousness partly rooted in awareness of greater legal rights, they also underscore new challenges in China. The labor laws have raised expectations, but still leave workers relatively powerless by Western standards. The Communist Party-run legal system cannot cope with the exploding volume of labor disputes. And legal enforcement by local officials loosened when the global economic crisis hit China and resulted in factory shutdowns." [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 20, 2010]

Chinese Labor Contract Law

The Labor Contract Law enacted in January 2008 tries to guarantee contracts for all full-time employees, but leaves many details vague. Another law enacted in May 2008 helped streamline the system of arbitration and lawsuits, but civil courts and arbitration committees, which are made up of government employees, have been overwhelmed by a flood of cases. Meanwhile, because of lax enforcement, companies dodge other labor laws by cheating on minimum wage requirements and overtime pay.
The main goal of the Labor Contract Law has been to ensure that full-time employees across all industries work under a contract. It also tries to mandate severance pay for contracted employees. But companies find ways around contract guarantees or wage laws.
Publicity regarding the Labor Contract Law had a tremendous impact on raising worker consciousness, said Aaron Halegua, a lawyer based in New York who is a consultant on Chinese labor law. Even if migrant workers still do not know the specific details of each of their legal rights, far more came to realize that they have rights and there are laws protecting them.

Chinese Labor Unions

Chinese labor laws give workers the right to form unions. Trade unions are an arm of the state, and are controlled by and provide funding for the Communist Party. The party tells unions which leaders to elect. According to Chinese law a union can be created at any place with 25 or employees. The approval of the employer is not required. The unions do not negotiate and make agreements with state-controlled management.
Unions don’t negotiate contacts.By law all companies that have more than 100 employees are supposed to have unions but these are unions in name only. Most companies ignore the rule. When ones are set up they are often run by factory owners, the traditional adversary of unions, or local officials in cahoots with the factory owners. Rank-and-file members are expected to follow their orders. The union does little in the way of traditional union activities such as lobbying for better wages and better working conditions.
Unions are trying to organize at foreign-owned companies. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has the goal unionizing 70 percent of foreign companies in China. In recent years t has focuses attention on unionizing workers at Wal-Mart. See Wal-Mart

All-China Federation of Trade Unions

Under the current system, only the government-run union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has more than 170 million members, is permitted. The union only nominally represents workers; in practice, it has close ties with management. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 20, 2010]
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is China’s state-sanctioned labor body. It is run like the Communist Party. Membership dropped from 130 million in 1990 to 90 million in 2000. It also has trouble recruiting new members.
The state-backed unions are largely charged with overseeing workers, not bargaining for higher wages or pressing for improved labor conditions. And they are not allowed to strike, although China’s laws do not have explicit prohibitions against doing so.
The union has a wide presence in state-owned companies and has made a big push to establish branches in foreign companies — its most notable victory was unionizing Wal-Mart stores in 2006. Private Taiwanese, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese companies often do not have branches of the official union. Marc Blecher’s 2008 article in Critical Asian Studies (When Wal-Mart Wimped Out) interprets the significance and considerable irony of the ACFTU’s decision to compel the world’s largest corporation and outspoken opponent of unions to organize ACFTU branches in its sixty stores in China.

Independent Trade Unions in China

Chinese workers still do not have the right to form unions independent of the one controlled by the government. Independent trade unions are illegal and regarded as a threat to the Communist Party. Efforts to set up unions are crushed by police. Leaders have been arrested and given long prison sentences. These days agitators are getting away with more than they used. In some cases they have pushed companies to set up union but were then left of the list of candidates to run it. In October 2003, Li Jianfeng, a former court official was sentenced to 16 years in prison subversion for attempting to start an independent trade union. Human rights groups said Li was framed and tortured.
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Western experts say if Chinese leaders were to allow independent unions, that could help defuse labor discontent.“Early drafts of the Labor Contract Law of 2008 had clauses that would have allowed for more independent unions, but those were excised from the final version.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 20, 2010]
Mary E. Gallagher, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies Chinese labor, told the New York Times. “The final version also left out an earlier clause that said companies had to get union approval on major workplace changes.I would doubt very much that the Chinese Communist Party thinks that the benefits of an independent Chinese trade union outweighs the costs or outweighs the risks.” [Ibid]
Workers at a Honda parts factory in Zhongshan in 2010 made the formation of an independent union one of their main demands, along with wage increases.
The Hong Kong University student organization—Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM)—reported on abuses of workers at Nine Dragons Papers, owned by Zhang Yin, a businesswoman regarded as one of the richest people in China. Founded in 2005 as a non-profit organization originating “from a students' movement devoted to improving the labor conditions of cleaning workers and security guards under the outsourcing policy, “ SACOM has a number of projects and reports on labor abuses at such companies as Disneyland Hong Kong, Giordano, Motorola and Wal-mart.

Labor Discontent in China

In June 2010, well-known and respected Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang wrote in Global Viewpoint, “After 30 years of reform and spectacular economic growth, the cracks are beginning to show. The workers who created China’s economic miracle are tiring of being treated like cogs in a machine, working long hours in dangerous conditions for derisory pay. They are now saying enough is enough, staging strikes and protests across he country to demand not just their legal rights but a better standard of living, better working conditions and a better future.”
“What we are seeing in an intensive base of worker activism that reflects the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy and, more importantly, the failure of the government to tackle fundamental issues that give rise to these disputes in the first place: low pay, lack of any formal channels though which workers can voice their grievances and demands, and the consistent exclusion of migrant workers from education, health and social services in the cities.”

Labor Unrest in China

In China’s manufacturing heartland in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province there are around 10,000 labor disputes a year. Elsewhere workers often stage protest over unpaid wages, lay offs and other issues. .
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Labor disputes are becoming a common feature of the Chinese economic landscape. Chinese workers are much more willing these days to defend their rights and demand higher wages, encouraged by recent policies from the central government aimed at protecting laborers and closing the income gap. Chinese leaders dread even the hint of Solidarity-style labor activism. But they have moved to empower workers by pushing through labor laws that signaled that central authorities would no longer tolerate poor workplace conditions, legal scholars and Chinese labor experts say.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 20, 2010]
Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang wrote: “As social conflicts have increased over the past 20 years, and rights violations have become more widespread, more and more victims have begun to speak out. They will no longer be silenced. It is no longer taboo for workers to use strike action to defend their rights. In the Pearl River Delta alone, strikes involving more than a thousand people occur on a daily basis, with many more protests on a smaller scale. At the end of last year, waves of strikes broke out amongst taxi drivers and teachers across the country. The teachers sought fairer pay terms, and in some cases succeeded in bringing the local government to the negotiating table. Twenty years ago, or even ten years, such an outcome - officials talking to strike leaders - would have been unimaginable.”

Research on Labor Unrest in China

The strikes at auto parts suppliers for Toyota and Honda in May and June of 2010, show laborers and migrant workers in China have gained a level of organizational sophistication and political awareness to make demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and in some cases, elections for union representatives. The following are some new books that shed some light on the matter. [Source: Mark W. Frazier, China Beat, July 2, 2010]
Foremost among these is Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt by Ching Kwan Lee (University of California Press, 2007) highly praised in a January 2010 London Review of Books article by Perry Anderson. . Mark W. Frazier of China Beat wrote: “ Lee explores the moral economies and resistance of Chinese workers in two domains: first among the socialist working class in the state sector of the Northeast (the rustbelt), where the dismantling of the iron rice bowl brought an end to the social contract of job security and lifetime benefits, including housing. Lee compares the unmaking of the state socialist working class with the making of a new working class in the foreign-invested export sector of the South (the sunbelt). Here, migrant workers invoke the state’s new labor legislation and pursue claims to rights protection and equal citizenship, in the face of widespread legal and social discrimination stemming from the household registration system (hukou).”
In both the sunbelt and the rustbelt, protests remain highly cellularized, or confined to groups of workers from the same factory who present to employers and local governments demands that are specific to their workplace, or their cohort within the factory (e.g., unpaid pensions, unpaid wages, overtime violations, etc.). This localized pattern of labor protest, and how it varies, is a common theme found throughout the field of Chinese labor. Scholars such as Elizabeth Perry have shown how fragmentation, rather than class formation, both facilitates labor protest and influences how the state connects with and controls labor movements and their leadership. William Hurst’s The Chinese Worker After Socialism (Cambridge University Press, 2009) offers a regional account to this story of working class segmentation, showing how laid-off workers and their collective action is based on the political economy of different regions of China. Like Lee, Hurst provides illuminating details from interviews and fieldwork among laid-off workers who invoke different patterns of collective action and political symbols to press their demands.

Strikes in China

Strikes are illegal. Strike leaders can be imprisoned. Still they occur. They seem to be occurring more these days as workers see increasing wealth around them and realize how exploited the are. Even though few workers are unionized in the Western sense of the word they can organize by contacting one another with cell phones.
In some cases there is so little communication between workers and management that workers feel that going on strike or engaging in some other disruptive activity is the only way for them to have their concerns addressed.
In November 2004, workers at the Shanlin Technology factory near Guangzhou went on strike demanding higher overtime pay and more time off. The workers returned to work a day after receiving assurances that they would get two days off a month and an increase of overtime pay from 12 cents to 36 cents an hour.
In April 2005, workers at Uniden Electronic Products plant, the Shenzhen-based Japanese manufacturer, went on strike. They demanded a raise, better living facilities, less overtime and a union. The strike was put down by quickly hiring new workers to take the place of those who had gone on strike. Strike leaders disappeared, presumably to jail
The mostly female workers at Uniden had gone on strike in December 2004 reportedly after overhearing a Japanese manager tell a Chinese manager that workers would be foolish to accept the terms of a new contract. Uniden makes cell phones and products that are sold at Wal-Mart and other places.
See Honda, Toyota, Foxconn

Labor Protests in China

Workers protest
Demonstrations have been held across China to protest poor working conditions, layoffs and factory closings. They have been staged by unpaid textile workers in Sichuan, by coal miners who had their wages cut in southeastern Jiangxi province, and by retired auto plant employees in Beijing demanding their unpaid pensions. In Guangzhou, workers that claimed they had not been paid by a construction company dangled from 40-meter-high cranes until a settlement was reached.
Workers who have been laid off and pensioners denied what is owed them routinely block roads and take over factories until their concerns are addressed. Many local government have an emergency fund that they can use to give out money to avoid a big protest. Also on hand are hundreds of policemen and militia members armed with riot shields and electric prods.
Protest have been staged by workers over China’s membership to the WTO, the activities of corrupt officials and the fact when factory assets are sold the factory bosses profit handsomely while the workers get nothing and often lose not only their jobs but benefits promised them. In the industrial city of Liaoyang in Liaoning Province in the northeast, 30,000 workers from 20 different factories participated in strikes and protest over unemployment and closing down factories. Large protest have also been held un Daqing, a major oil production area in the northeast.
The government seems to be more tolerant of these protest and rarely turns to violence to solve them. In most cases there are few arrests, an effort is made keep news about the protest from leaking out and concessions are quietly made with workers. In many cases, it seems, Beijing has realized that the workers concerns are valid and ignoring them is only going to stir up animosity towards the government.

Labor Revolts in China

Workers have staged revolts over corruption, unpaid wages and pensions and dangerous working conditions. According to government statistics the number of work-related disputes increased 14-fold between 1992 and 1999. In 1999, there were more than 120,000 disputes, a 29 percent increase from 1998.
In 2000 in Chengdu, hundreds of workers marched on an army-run factory fear that they would lose their jobs. Near the industrial city of Liaoyang, the same year, workers rioted for three days, burning cars and smashing windows, after a state-run molybdenum mine was shut down.
In the early 2000s, 30,000 protestors gathered in the street in Liaoyang to protest unpaid wages, missing pension funds and corrupt officials who stripped factories of their assets. The demonstration was brought to halt when government officials said they would listen to the worker’s grievances. A dozen men and women emerged from the crowd. They met with government representatives who promised to address their concerns if they called off the protest. The protests were stopped. Instead of making changes, the government arrested the protest leaders.
In spring of 2004, a strike at the Taiwanese-owned shoe maker, Stella International, in Dongguan near Guangzhou, turned violent. At one point more than 500 workers sacked company offices, severely injuring on executive. Police arrived and took away the ring leaders. The workers were upset about the food in the cafeteria and an error in which vacation time was docked from their wages.
In July 2005, a strike at the Futai Textile Factory in Xizhou, outside Guangzhou, became a violent riot after a motorcycle was set on fire. Some 3,000 furious workers pelted buses and cars with rocks, bricks and watermelon seeds, undeterred by the tear gas fired at them by police. The workers were demanding higher pay and upset about the reduction in wages because the factory slowdown and the blocking of ain attempt to form an independent labor union.

Suit with thumbprints by
workers at a fertilizer factory
In January 2006, workers at a bankrupt factory scheduled to be closed down in Chengdu protested the loss of their jobs and battled with police for three days and took a manager hostage.
In June 2007, thousands of workers—most of them women—at a plastic Christmas tree factory in Shenzhen clashed with police after a 10-day strike over long working hours and the laying off of long-term workers without any compensation.

Labor Reforms in China

In a major speech marking the opening of National People’s Congress in March 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised to extend worker’s compensation coverage to all those injured in the line of work.
In 2006, Walt Disney Japan told a Chinese firm that made character goods to stop fining plant employees for violating work rules. The Chinese company refused to comply and closed the plants and sued Walt Disney Japan for ¥70 million.
Some scholars and government advisers have advocated adopted Western-style collective bargaining.
Dongfang believes the answer to China’s labor problems is setting up functioning unions that can open a dialogue with management and address grievances and avoid problems by nipping them at the bud. He says there are even some Communist party officials, such as the party boss in Guangdong Province, who agree with him. Equally important, he said, is for governments to provide education, health services and other social benefits for migrant workers who are excluded from basic government benefits by resident laws. Dongfang then goes a step further, arguing local governments should set up special housing and other services for migrants because they have generated so much tax revenues for the governments.
Yet Beijing still shies away from allowing workers to choose representatives to negotiate salaries and other benefits with employers.

Labor Disputes and Arbitration in China

The leap in worker consciousness is best reflected in the rising number of labor disputes that have gone to arbitration or to the courts. In 2008, the year factory shutdowns surged, nearly 700,000 labor disputes went to arbitration, almost double the number in 2007, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. Last year’s numbers were roughly the same as those in 2008. If arbitration proves unsatisfactory, Chinese workers or employers can appeal to civil courts. In 2008, the number of labor cases in courts was 280,000, a 94 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Supreme People’s Court. In the first half of 2009, there were 170,000 such cases.
In many parts of China, there is now a backlog of labor disputes awaiting resolution. Some workers have had to wait up to a year for arbitration committees to address their complaints.
Moreover, government officials, perhaps to protect local employers, have pushed for disputes to be solved through mediation rather than reach the level of arbitration committees or courts, and they have not enforced labor laws strictly, especially in the aftermath of the mass factory closings, legal experts said. In late 2008, officials in Guangdong Province, where labor disputes are common, issued a report saying that 500 or so unofficial lawyers who represented workers were a source of growing trouble.

Lawsuits by Workers in China

Workers are also increasingly attempting to get help from the courts. The number of labor disputes accepted by labor arbitration committees n China rose from 4,000 in 1987 to 135,000 in 2000. The number of lawsuits rose from 17,000 in 1992 to half a million in 2000.
In a typical case, workers want the return of pension fund money that their employers have deducted from their pay but not placed in their pension funds. After months in court, delays, broken promises, protests and disruptions, the workers get $5000 each from their employers..
See Factory Injuries
Image Sources: China Labor Watch
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2011


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