By Simon Gilbert
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China: A labour movement in the making

This article is over 6 years, 3 months old
Chinese workers are on the move, often provoked by unpaid wages, long hours and rotten, dangerous working conditions. Simon Gilbert looks at whether there is potential for the host of seperate disputes to coalesce into a national workers’ movement, with enormous power.
Issue 434

Behind China’s much vaunted economic miracle lies a tale of exploitation and resistance. The wealth of the country’s new billionaires was created by the labour of millions of migrant workers, working exhaustingly long hours for little pay, if they ever got paid at all, in some of the most dangerous conditions in the world. But the bosses, including those of the multinational corporations who often reap the biggest profits, haven’t had it all their own way. In the face of government repression workers have learnt to organise and fight for their rights.

According to government figures there have been significant improvements in workplace health and safety in recent years. The numbers killed at work dropped from over 100,000 per year in the mid-2000s to 43,000 in 2016. This still makes a Chinese worker over ten times more likely to die on the job than their British counterpart, however. The figures also hide some statistical sleights of hand. They fell sharply in 2015 because “non-productive accidents” were removed from the total.

The death rate in China’s notorious mines has fallen even faster, although the industry still claims around 500 lives a year. But other jobs such as delivery driving are becoming more dangerous. One recent report estimated that a driver is killed or seriously injured on average every 2.5 days in the city of Shanghai alone. These are usually classified as traffic accidents and don’t make it into the industrial accident figures.

When a group of drivers employed by food delivery company Meituan struck against a pay cut last year they also objected to the pressures that drove them to take risks, “Am I supposed to drive through red lights?” asked one. “Putting this pressure on us is simply toying with our lives.”

Others suffer from long-term health problems as a result of inadequate safety measures. China has around 6 million sufferers from pneumoconiosis, an occupational illness caused by inhalation of dust, but only about 10 percent of these have been officially recognised as work-related. Many of these victims have campaigned, with some success, for compensation. Factory workers have also taken strike action against dangerous work practices and to demand medical check-ups when they suspect that their health is being put in jeopardy. Late last year, for example, workers at an electronics factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, walked out complaining of headaches and dizziness caused by inhaling dangerous chemicals.

Overwork is another cause of health problems and early death in China. Not surprising perhaps when compulsory overtime can mean working 12 or more hours, up to seven days a week. Migrant workers’ vulnerability to these extreme forms of exploitation has in the past been bolstered by a combination of draconian management and the notorious hukou system. The lack of an urban hukou, or residence permit, acts as a disincentive to protest as migrants can easily be deported back to their home province.

However, a number of factors have served to strengthen the position of migrant workers in recent years. From about 2004 employers in Guangdong, the most common migrant destination, started to experience labour shortages. Increasing numbers were heading to other areas, especially the Shanghai region, where wages are somewhat higher. This meant that employers have had to compete for workers, pushing up wages and curbing management abuse. The local authorities have also relaxed enforcement of the hukou system.

Today many workers in Guangdong are the children of 1990s migrants. Less able and willing to return to the countryside if life becomes unbearable in the cities, they are more likely to stay and fight for their rights. So, while for the previous generation protests were usually a last resort against management abuse or for unpaid wages, now workers are becoming more assertive and there are a growing number of strikes for higher wages.

It’s not just migrant factory workers who are taking to the streets. Traditionally held in high esteem in China, many teachers now face similar problems of low pay and long hours, especially in the countryside. Teachers’ protests are a regular occurrence right across the country. Under the impact of neoliberal style reforms the Chinese education system has seen some of the same developments as those in the West, such as the increasing use of under-qualified teachers with less job security and on lower rates of pay, the introduction of often quite arbitrary performance measures, and a focus on exam results at the expense of a more rounded education. Teachers have responded with strikes and protests for higher wages, equal pay for equal work and against unpaid overtime. And, as with many factory workers, they have also fought to get unpaid wages and social security contributions.


The explosive potential of these struggles was highlighted in 2014 when a strike by a few hundred teachers in Zhaodong, Heilongjiang province quickly grew to involve over 20,000 in several nearby towns. The common problems faced by teachers mean that they are seen as more than workplace issues and anger can be directed at the national government: “If China had improved conditions for teachers like Japan had and we were respected by society, we wouldn’t have to come out and protest” one of the Heilongjiang strikers told the Financial Times. At the end of January this year hundreds of retired community teachers from across the country rallied in Beijing to demand payment of their pensions.

The debate about “precarity” that has become prominent in Western labour studies is also influential in writing on China — the online journal Made in China recently devoted an issue to it. The working class, so the argument goes, is divided between, on the one hand, a privileged group enjoying high wages, job security and good benefits, and on the other a precarious group with low wages and little job security or benefits. In the Chinese case this takes the form of divisions between migrant and indigenous, formal and informal, and state and private sector workers.

Insecure employment is certainly a common experience for Chinese workers. Many migrants have no formal contract, in violation of the law, or only have a temporary contract. They receive little or nothing in the way of social security benefits and face the threat of deportation to their home province. But this doesn’t mean they have no effective power to fight for their rights. In 2017 41 percent of the strikes and protests recorded by the Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin (CLB) were in construction, a sector dominated by migrant workers. Many of these were for overdue wages.

The use of agency staff on temporary contracts, known as “dispatch” workers, has become widespread in Chinese industry. The bosses aim to lower labour costs and sow divisions between permanent “formal” workers and “informal” agency workers. But these contracts are often renewed and the workers learn skills valuable to their employers, giving them a degree of leverage. As one agency worker explained to Lu Zhang, author of Inside China’s Automobile Factories, “The whole shop has 500 workers and almost half are now laowu gong [agency staff]. If we stop working all together, the whole shop will stop.”

The very differences intended to divide can also become sources of resentment, provoking workers to take action. For instance, agency workers at FAW Volkswagen in Changchun have been campaigning for over a year for equal pay with directly paid employees for equal work, a legal obligation according to Chinese law. Some of them have been working at the site for more than ten years.

Another source of cheap labour for unscrupulous employers is student interns. The students, seconded from colleges desperate for funds, often have little choice in taking up low paid work with little relation to their studies.

State sector workers have often been seen as a privileged group, aloof from the concerns of migrants and those in the private sector. However, a slowing economy has intensified competition and state-owned enterprises have been adopting the methods of the private sector. So agency working, long hours and unpaid wages are increasingly common. State employees are learning from the private sector too. At the other end of the country to the Volkswagen factory, a group of agency electricians in Kunming also protested for equal pay last year — against a state-owned construction company.

In 2016 attempts at a national level to lay-off workers and cut costs were met with concerted resistance. Thousands of miners in the north eastern city of Shuangyashan struck for wages owed and hundreds more walked out in Anyang, Jiangxi, while in southern guangzhou workers at Ansteel went on strike against an attempted pay cut. Later that year many of the targets to cut production had not been met as local governments, fearful of provoking more strikes, delayed their implementation.

Academic writers on Chinese labour issues often see workers merely as victims and dismiss their actions as local and self-limiting, with little prospect of leading to a wider challenge to the regime. But, in an era of low profitability, competition is driving employers to constantly attack workers’ conditions, generalising the experience of those who have been at the forefront of the class struggle over the last two decades. So the problems faced by workers, whether state or private, formal or informal, migrant or indigenous, are becoming increasingly similar, creating the basis for the emergence of a countrywide labour movement.

The government has adopted various strategies to try and prevent this happening and to keep actions limited to individual workplaces. They have, for instance, introduced a series of labour laws that, among other things, stipulate mandatory contracts, put limits on the working day and provide for social benefits. However, these legal requirements are often ignored by employers. This is a common pattern in China where the national government passes laws but doesn’t provide the money or political will for local authorities to effectively implement them. Central government takes the credit for progressive legislation, local government or employers take the blame when it isn’t enforced, but the underlying problem isn’t solved.


So the effect of labour legislation is that it has increased workers’ awareness of their rights, but workers have to take to the streets to force compliance, as was the case at Volkswagen for instance. Regulations intended to dampen militancy have instead become a significant stimulus to protest and strike. Much the same can be said about minimum wage rates, which are similarly often flouted.

Government officials in the Guangdong industrial city of Dongguan claim that a new “labour relations early warning system” was the reason for a notable drop in strikes and protests. This brings together various authorities to try and nip labour disputes in the bud before any action is taken. However CLB put the fall down to the fact that many of the smaller labour intensive factories, those most prone to disputes, had relocated elsewhere in recent years.

The trade unions are another part of the regime’s labour control strategy. Chinese unions don’t represent workers in even the limited bureaucratic way that ours do. All workplace unions come under the control of the All China Federation of Trades Unions, an arm of the state. They are there to prevent disputes if possible and end them as quickly as possible if not; they never initiate strikes. When Honda workers walked out in 2010 they first had to fight off a gang of thugs sent by their own union to break the strike. Unions are generally a bit more sophisticated than that and in places have had to make some show of representing workers’ interests, but this is only to put them in a position to head off independent action.

Striking workers have occasionally included in their demands the right to elect their own union officials. This is what the Honda strikers did, and they can now elect their immediate representatives although the higher officials are appointed from above. While this is a sign of increased confidence and serves to rein in the more high-handed union officials, in the longer term trying to reform the state unions is likely to prove a dead end.

China’s rapid development since the early 1990s means that the terrain of class struggle is constantly changing, drawing new layers of workers into battle. Following the early economic boom centred on the south eastern coastal provinces, the government has made a concerted effort to develop the poorer inland provinces. This, combined with increasing costs, in Guangdong especially, prompted many companies to relocate further west, so spreading industrial struggle across the country. Electronics giant Foxconn, which produces for many of the world’s leading technology multinationals, has faced strikes both at its Guangdong plant in Foshan, and also at its inland plants at Zhengzhou and Taiyuan.

The regime has also promoted the development of tech industries in an attempt to move beyond the labour intensive growth of earlier years. But these workers are being drawn into struggle too, and for similar reasons. Each year there is a surge in strikes and protests as workers try and claim unpaid wages before the Spring Festival holiday. A large proportion of these involve construction workers, but this year there was a marked increase in protests at IT companies as well.

There are struggles other than work-based ones taking place too. In December last year hundreds protested in the Beijing suburb of Feijia against one of a series of evictions of migrant workers in the capital. And the ethnic minority areas of Tibet and Xinjiang occasionally witness explosive uprisings. But, as the producers of China’s enormous wealth, workers have a power that these groups lack.

We shouldn’t exaggerate the current level of struggle — most actions remain within a single workplace — and we can’t really talk about a national labour movement yet. Nevertheless over the last two decades or so millions of Chinese workers have taken part in strikes, some of them multiple times, and a layer of experienced activists is beginning to emerge. The potential is there for a mass movement to challenge authoritarian rule.


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