Home .Society Decent work in China?
Decent work in China?
Thursday, 28 April 2011 05:58

According to the World Bank, the number of Chinese people living on less than $1.25 a day (ie, in extreme poverty)  fell from 835 million to 208 million from 1981 to 2005.  As a share of the Chinese population, the fall is even more dramatic, from 84% to 16%.  With the Chinese economy recording more than 10% growth a year since that year, these poverty head counts would be even lower today.


But to what extent do Chinese workers have decent work?  The NGO, China Labor Watch, reports that Chinese workers suffer many abuses of their fundamental human rights.


The International Labour Organisation argues that decent work sums up the aspirations all people have for their working lives; for work that is productive, delivers a fair income with security and social protection, safeguards basic rights, offers equality of opportunity and treatment, prospects for personal development and the chance for recognition and to have your voice heard.


Decent work is also central to efforts to reduce poverty and is a path to achieving equitable, inclusive and sustainable development.  In this context, the ILO also promotes the respect of international labor standards, of which the core labor standards are: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced and compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in the workplace.


The reports of China Labor Watch (CLW) are quite simply horror stories.  Founded in 2000, CLP is an independent not-for-profit organization.  It collaborates with unions, labor organizations and the media to conduct in-depth assessments of factories in China that produce toys, bikes, shoes, furniture, clothing, and electronics for some of the largest U.S. companies.  Its mission is to pressure these corporations to improve conditions for workers.


One incident that received great publicity last year was the 13 young workers who attempted or committed suicide, mostly by jumping off their dormitory, at the two Foxconn production facilities in southern China between January and May 2010.  Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that assembles consumer electronics for a number of well-known multinational companies like Apple, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Nintendo, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony, and Samsung.  So when you think of iPhones, iPods and iPads, think Foxconn.  The company's largest operation is at the Longhua Science & Technology Park, a cramped, walled campus sometimes referred to as "Foxconn City" or "iPod City".


Why did these suicides occur?  It is argued that management has used abusive and illegal methods to raise worker efficiency, generating widespread grievances and resistance at the workplace level.  Competitive pressure from leading international brands have resulted in substandard conditions in their global electronics supply chains.  And local Chinese officials in collusion with enterprise management, systematically neglect workers’ rights, resulting in widespread misery and deepened social inequalities. The Foxconn human tragedy raises profound concerns about the working lives of the new generation of Chinese migrant workers. It also challenges the state-driven policy based on the use of internal rural migrant workers, whose labor and citizenship rights have been violated.


Another incident which has been documented by the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights, concerns worker rights violations—including workers maimed when factory management turned off critical safety equipment—at the Yuwei Plastics and Hardware Products company in Dongguan, China.  According to workers, 80 percent of the factory's production is for Ford.  Workers earn a base wage of just 80 cents an hour, working 14-hour shifts and 7 days a week.  During the peak season, workers toil 30 days a month, often drenched in their own sweat.


Prospective hires are told they must "work hard and endure hardship."  New workers receive no training or safety instructions before being assigned to operate dangerous machinery, even though industrial accidents are frequent.  If a worker misses one day’s work, as punishment he will be docked three days’ wages.


China Labor Watch also conducted an investigation into “MSI Computer (Shenzhen)” which is a supplier to HP, Dell, Apple, Nokia and others.  Of the labor abuses revealed, the most serious concerns include: blatant discrimination against male workers and older workers; Hepatitis B testing is mandatory, all carriers are disqualified from recruitment; pregnancy testing is mandatory and may be used in a discriminatory nature; there are only 1-2 rest days each month during the peak season; there is a 12+ hour/day, 6-7-day work week during the peak season; before work “educational sessions” and after work self-criticism reviews are mandatory, and unpaid; if a production quota is not met, there is additional unpaid overtime; there is no paid sick leave, maternal leave, or marriage leave; during working hours, talking is strictly forbidden, and workers are unable to use the bathroom; if management discovers a mistake, they will criticize or personally insult and belittle the worker; seasonal production fluctuations create unreasonable work intensity with no rest, or low wages.


The China Labor Watch also conducted a survey of Chinese workers’ working conditions in 2010.  The gravest classes of labor violations of workers’ rights are:

(i) The ability for workers to organize and express their grievances is extremely limited, and poses a serious problem. In 88.2% of the surveyed factories, there was no functional or effective trade union or grievance mechanism system;

(ii) In 87% of the factories, daily overtime work exceeded three hours or there was no guarantee of one day of rest each week. Not one factory met the legal requirements for overtime monthly maximum of 36 hours. In the surveyed factories, overtime hours in excess of 100 hours was the norm, and some were even in excess of 200 hours.

(iii) 82.6% of the factories surveyed do not pay wages in accordance with Chinese labor laws, with regards to minimum wage and/or overtime rates. As workers have no means of engaging in collective bargaining, there is little hope of wages increases.

(iv) The CLW survey reveals that there are seven additional significant problems facing workers: occupational safety and protection problems, social insurance, dormitory conditions, labor contract, forced labor, discrimination, and child labor and minor protection.


The work of NGOs like China Labor Watch is laudable, and it is certainly having some success in pressuring US companies to demand better working conditions in their suppliers’ factories in China.  US companies are concerned about their “reputational risk”.


We must recognize that working conditions and salaries in poor countries like China will always be worse than in advanced countries.  At the same time, as a country develops, workers should gain a fair share of the benefits, something which has not been happening as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.  Moreover, even if workers get low salaries and have poor working conditions, there is certainly no need to abuse them and disrespect their human rights.


This is why the work of NGOs like China Labor Watch is so important.





World Bank, "The developing world is poorer than we thought, but no less successful in the fight against poverty", Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravaillion.


International Labour Organisation


China Labor Watch


Suicide as Protest for the New Generation of Chinese Migrant Workers: Foxconn, Global Capital, and the State by Jenny Chan and Ngai Pun


Lost Fingers Come Cheap at Ford Sweatshop Supplier in China, Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights



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