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Workers take a lunch break outside a construction site, Beijing, China, Dec. 13, 2016 (AP photo by Andy Wong).

China’s Complicated Relationship With Workers’ Rights

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017

Editor’s note: This article is the first in an ongoing WPR series about workers' rights in various countries around the world.

Labor organizations in China expect worker protests, which are common around the Lunar New Year, to spike in the coming weeks, in large part because workers from the “new economy,” which includes e-commerce workers, are experiencing problems with overdue payments for the first time. In an email interview, Cynthia Estlund, the Catherine A. Rein professor at the New York University School of Law and author of “A New Deal for China’s Workers?,” discusses labor rights in China.

WPR: What legal rights do workers have in China with regard to the right to organize, and what protections do they have in terms of labor standards and wages?

Cynthia Estlund: Workers in China have no right to organize their own independent unions. Collective representation of workers is the sole province of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions and its affiliates, whose officials are appointed by and accountable to the governing Communist Party. Any overt challenge to that monopoly is harshly suppressed. The hostility to independent labor organizing casts a shadow of suspicion even over organizations that advocate for workers’ legal rights; such organizations must stay within narrowly prescribed boundaries and submit to official supervision, or risk official harassment or worse.

By contrast, workers’ substantive legal rights and labor standards closely resemble or even exceed employee rights in much of the West. That includes minimum wages and maximum hours laws, though of course wage levels are lower in China; mandatory employer social insurance contributions, which are very high relative to wage levels; and laws ensuring job security, which have been rated as stronger than those found in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Unfortunately, that describes “the law on the books,” not the law in action. Lack of enforcement is a large and chronic problem in China, and a major source of labor unrest.

WPR: To what degree have workers organized outside of officially sanctioned unions, what are their grievances, and how has the government responded?

Estlund: Of the growing number of strikes and disruptive worker protests in recent years, many stem from demands for higher wages, but most involve unpaid wages, missing social insurance contributions and other legally grounded complaints. All of these are organized by workers themselves, as the official union does not sanction much less lead strikes. Many strikes are spontaneous outbursts that spread among co-workers through text messages or social media, but some have been impressively well-planned, and a few have spread to related factories. A handful of worker activists have appeared in multiple strikes, helping workers transform spontaneous outbursts into constructive bargaining efforts. But recently the most prominent activists have been detained, prosecuted or otherwise brought to heel. The government far prefers to deal with disorganized worker unrest than risk organized mobilization.

Local governments respond to strikes, like other threats to stability, with an ad hoc mix of carrots and sticks—the larger the strike, the more immediate and robust the response. Both police and official local unions are responsible for maintaining stability. The union may attempt to mediate the dispute by exacting concessions from employers, while the police stand by—or intervene around the edges—with the “sticks.”

The central government has also attempted to address workers’ underlying grievances, in part by expanding access to legal remedies and legal aid. Proposals to make the official union more responsive, or to institute some form of collective bargaining, have been inhibited by the fear that they would require or unleash greater grassroots activism.

WPR: What impact has China’s trade-driven industrialization had on workers’ rights and the workers movement?

Estlund: By and large, industrial-led economic growth has contributed to Chinese workers’ wages as well as their legal rights and their willingness and ability to engage in collective action.

Beginning in the 1980s, China’s export economy drew millions of poor migrants from China’s interior to the coastal factory areas. Labor laws were weak and widely ignored, and conditions were awful. By the mid-2000s, as capital flowed into the coastal regions and eventually into inland China, the most developed areas began to experience labor shortages. In the meantime, poverty rates plummeted. Emboldened by labor shortages, workers began to push back against low and unpaid wages and abuse, and to mount protests against broken promises and broken laws. Both high demand for labor and government concern about labor unrest helped to push up wages over time, and underwrote some serious government efforts to improve labor standards and protection of workers’ rights, including three major laws enacted in 2007.

The highly publicized Honda strikes in 2010 put collective labor relations on the front burner. Strikes were tolerated to some degree, as long as they were confined to a single factory, though strike leaders were sometimes targeted for repression. Officials sanctioned a flurry of localized experiments with “collective bargaining” and with comparatively democratic elections of enterprise-level union officials. In more recent years of declining growth, official interest in reform appears to have receded, and talk has turned toward affording firms greater flexibility in labor relations, and even trimming back some protections enacted in 2007.

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