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Tuesday, November 30, 2004


PRC escapes Burma-style grilling over labor strife

Labor unrest continues to haunt the Communist Party of China. The Washington Post (27 Nov) describes an "unprecedented series of walkouts" marking "the first stirrings of unrest" emerging among the millions of youthful migrant workers who supply seemingly inexhaustible cheap labor for the vast expanse of factories in the PRC's booming Pearl River Delta.

"Some [factory owners] have concluded that the raw era in which rootless Chinese villagers would accept whatever job they could get may be drawing to a close, raising questions about China's long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing," the Post's Edward Cody reported.

"The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations ... "

Apparently eager to show solidarity with restless workers, the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only legal union in the country, recently issued a reminder that the law requires foreign as well as Chinese companies to accept federation branches wherever workers demand it. The official federation announced that Wal-Mart, the American merchandizing giant, had agreed to allow unions in its factories in China.

"But factory owners and workers in the Pearl River boom zone said the official union does little to represent labor, even in the rare cases when branches are formed, because it is a spinoff of local governments that own or rely on the businesses ... Even when they do not directly own companies, local governments have a high stake in preserving the Pearl River Delta's role as a magnet for U.S., Japanese and other firms seeking cheap labor unencumbered by unions ...

"The result has been a near-total lack of representation for the millions of workers, most of them 18- to 22-year-old women, who toil on assembly lines more than 60 hours a week for wages that amount to about $120 a month. According to standard practice, most live at their factories in company-provided dormitories and eat in company cafeterias -- and then hand back a third of their pay for food and lodging.

"Some villagers, unhappy with such meager leftover savings, have gone home, and factory managers have begun to encounter labor shortages for the first time, " Cody noted.

According to Tony Latter, visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong, escalating domestic food prices are also encouraging labourers to return to rural districts.

"One might wish that soaring costs in the cities would eventually drive businesses to the cheaper regions. But, as other countries have found, market forces seldom deliver that result, at least not on the desired scale. The magnet of agglomeration is very strong. Even once necessary transport infrastructure is in place, remote locations may struggle to attract sufficient investors to reverse the tide of labour heading the other way in search of fortune. It would probably require a vast further commitment of public funds to redress the balance. But, paradoxically, any reduction in the march to the cities - and tentative signs have emerged of a slowdown as rising agricultural prices reduce the incentive to leave the land - might constrain growth and government revenue. This in turn also cuts back on the available means to fund the regional support needed to break the cycle," he wrote in the South China Morning Post (25 Nov).

Cody observed that the labor walkouts are being organized in advance "but not by formal labor groups or permanent worker committees" and most are resolved without violence within a few hours. "Nevertheless, they signaled that docility among Chinese migrant workers can no longer be taken for granted. "

In the latest unrest, about 1,000 workers staged a walkout on Nov. 7 at the Shanlin Technology appliance factory in nearby Guangzhou, demanding higher overtime pay and more days off, according to the government-run New China News Agency. The workers returned to the assembly line a day later after receiving assurances that overtime pay would rise by 12 cents to 36 cents an hour and that they would get two days off a month, the agency reported.

However the PRC is one of the small minority of International Labor Organisation member states that has still not ratified either of the two core ILO conventions (Nos. 87 and 98) on freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to engage in collective bargaining, Robert Munro pointed out in the Fall edition of Perspectives On Work.

"This means that despite the government's wholesale and egregious suppression of the independent labor movement in China - a crackdown that has continued unabated since the brief nationwide flowering in May 1989 of 'workers' autonomous federations' - [the PRC] cannot be subjected to the kind of intense grilling and criticism by the ILO's supervisory bodies that a country like Burma/Myanmar, which ratified the ILO's Forced Labor Convention (No. 29) back in 1955, is nowadays subjected to at every major ILO conference.

"Unfortunately, the same logic dictates that China is unlikely to ratify Conventions 87 or 98 at any time in the near future.

"The Chinese government and its official trade union want to enjoy the benefits of membership in the world labor club, but without having to shoulder the major duties and responsibilities of that role."

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