Misery in a booming economy

On 24 December 2007, an 18-year-old migrant worker surnamed Huang jumped from the fifth floor of a tourist hotel in Hainan island where he was employed after his boss arbitrarily deducted about a quarter of his already meager 400-yuan (US$56) monthly wage. At the time, the legal minimum wage in Hunan was 580 yuan (US$85) a month.

Over the last three decades of economic reform in China, the per capita gross domestic product has increased 42-fold from 381 yuan (US$ 55.66) in 1978 to 18,934 yuan (US$ 2,766) in 2007.Yet, in the midst of what is widely viewed as an economic miracle, China’s workers, especially the 132 million Chinese migrant workers who left the countryside to seek job opportunities in cities, are subjected to exploitation and discrimination in myriad forms.

Although official statistics show a remarkable 34-fold increase in average wages, from a mere 51 yuan (US$ 7.4) per month in urban areas in 1978 to 2,078 yuan (US$ 304) in 2007,most migrant workers earn only the legally set minimum wage in spite of working excessively long hours. In major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the minimum wage in 2007 was just 20 to 25 percent of the city’s average monthly wage. (See statistics.) In 2007 the large majority of workers earned less than 1,000 yuan a month in Guangdong.But they have been facing a rising cost of living. For example, 500 grams of lean pork cost about 13 yuan by the end of 2008.As a result, many migrant workers have been driven to a subsistence level. (See CLB background article on migrant workers.)

Furthermore, many workers are not even paid the minimum wage. In order to earn more, some migrants work as many as 98 hours a week, more than double the 40 hours stipulated by China’s Labor Law. (See CLB research report on women migrant workers in Guangdong.) Even when workers are hired at a legal wage, delayed payment is common. According to a national survey on migrant workers commissioned by the State Council in 2004, about ten percent of migrant workers were owed seven months or more in unpaid wages. The report also found that 76 percent of migrant workers did not receive overtime pay on national holidays.Even though many campaigns have been launched to help workers claim wage arrears, the problem remains common today, and could well worsen as the financial crisis deepens. The situation is so common that in Shanghai just one district court recovered 10 million yuan in unpaid wages within two months around the Spring Festival in 2009.

Widespread work hazards

Working long hours in hazardous conditions takes a heavy toll on the health of migrant workers. Between 2003 and 2007, on average 122,897 people died in various industrial accidents (National Bureau of Statistics, various years). Coal mining, construction and manufacturing are among the highest risk jobs. (See CLB research report on the coal mining industry.) A study of 85 enterprises and 5,800 migrant workers in Shandong in 2005 showed that more than 80 percent of the surveyed enterprises had violated safety standards. About 60 percent of workers were exposed to unsafe levels of toxic dust, 28 percent of construction and textile workers surveyed had respiratory problems and many workers were undernourished, sleep-deprived and physically exhausted. However, the large majority of migrant workers in China are not covered by social security. In order not to lose a working day’s wage and not to have to pay out-of-pocket for a medical consultation, most migrant workers do not see a doctor even when they need to. (See CLB background article on migrant workers.)

Institutional discrimination

Chinese laws guarantee equal opportunity in employment. In reality, Chinese workers are subjected to wide ranging discrimination on the grounds of gender, height, illnesses and other physical characteristics. Hepatitis B carriers are routinely refused employment or forced to resign. A more shocking example was the Hunan government’s requirement civil servant recruits in 2004: one of the criteria for women was “a pair of symmetrical breasts.” At the end of 2008, some hospitals still demanded that the height of their nurses be above 1.60 meters.

Discrimination extends to the basic right of access to social services. China has a household registration (Hu Kou) system which links social services to place of residence. Once workers leave their hometown, they forfeit their rights to medical services, political participation, children’s education and other social services. Some cities claim they have given migrant workers the same rights as the locals but in fact, only workers with better qualifications can benefit from these policies. Most migrant workers and their children are living without social security. This leads to a higher prevalence of illnesses and preventable deaths among migrant workers. In Guangdong, the mortality rate of pregnant migrant workers was 40 per 100,000 persons, compared with only 20 in the general population. The average mortality rate of pregnant women in developed countries is about 10 per 100,000 (two in Sweden and six in Canada). According to a survey by a Chinese academic, about one third of migrant children living in cities suffer from anemia. They are also more likely to have depression and other mental health problems.

Mass protests and violence: the results of ineffective labor dispute resolution system

When workers are injured or laid off, more often than not they are denied legally required compensation. Although China has a labor dispute resolution mechanism, the administrative and legal procedures for seeking compensation are highly complicated and time consuming. It is not unusual for workers to wait more than several years to finally receive compensation. Many workers who lack the financial resources to pursue a case or who are unaware of their rights are not compensated at all. The effectiveness of the system is further undermined by local officials who are either corrupt or are loath to scare away investment or are biased in favor of employers.

Denied the right to form independent trade unions and unaware of their legal rights, many Chinese workers have no option but to take to the streets to seek redress. There were 87,000 mass protests in 2005, or 238 cases a day. Legitimate protests are often branded as “illegal demonstrations”. Many workers taking part in them are detained after peaceful protests, interrogated and sometimes beaten. Activists and ordinary workers taking part in demonstrations have been detained and often sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for their role in such protests. In 2006, there were 317,000 registered labor disputes, involving 740, 000 workers, over issues such as forced layoffs, unpaid wages and pensions and other rightful benefits. Among these were 19,000 collective labor disputes that involved 410,000 workers. Within the first three quarters of 2008, the number of registered labor disputes increased to 520,000.

In desperation, some workers have resorted to extreme methods in order to seek redress for their grievances, such as self-inflicted wounds and even suicide. If they survive suicide attempts, they might face criminal prosecution for disturbing the social order. On the other hand, workers who are determined to recover their wages might be assaulted by employers and their hired thugs. In January 2009, a group of about 70 workers from a silk clothing factory in Guangdong demanded unpaid wages. Unable to disperse the crowd, about 100 local police joined with local thugs hired by the employer and attacked the workers. Three workers suffered severe injuries in the incident.In another case in Tianjin about the same time, more than 300 workers threatened to drown themselves if they did not receive their wages.

Recent developments

The Labor Contract Law implemented last year led to an increase in the awareness among workers of their rights as evidenced by a sharp rise in labor dispute cases filed. Shen Deyong, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, told a Beijing press conference on 3 March that the number of labor-related lawsuits filed in 2008 jumped by 95 percent compared with 2007. In some coastal cities, such as Xiamen in Fujian province, the number of labor-related lawsuits doubled from 3,327 in 2007 to 8,313 in 2008. However, a year after the implementation of the Labor Contract Law, unlawful exploitation remains common. A survey in Shenzhen shows that employers use different ways to avoid legal contracts. Some coerce workers to sign a blank contract, or use two contracts (one with a higher wage and the other with a lower wage). The international financial crisis too shakes the govenment’s commitment to improving labor rights. In early January 2009, the Guangdong procuratorate issued an Opinion stressing that during the current economic difficulties, its officers should exercise caution in prosecuting enterprise bosses who committed common crimes and ensure that normal enterprise production and development was guaranteed. Prosecutors may choose not to arrest factory owners, managers and key technical staff accused of crimes such as embezzlement and corruption. (See CLB article on the Opinion). A similar trend can be found in other cities. The lack of official protection for basic rights during the economic downturn may trigger an increase in social unrest. In fact, the number of collective protests in China rose continually from 10,000 in 2003 to more than 80,000 in 2007. In November 2008, the number of collective incidents due to unpaid wages in Beijing rose three-fold compared to the previous year.
Defending labor rights

Ineffective enforcement of labor laws is one of the main reasons for widespread labor rights violations in China. Litigation is an option theoretically open to any Chinese worker seeking redress for violations of rights, but not one that a typical worker can pursue on his or her own. Friends of CLB believes that by providing legal advice and assistance to workers, labor disputes will be turned from something aggressive and unproductive to a peaceful legal productive process. Of course, fundamental labor rights protection must begin with the workers themselves. Only when workers have the right to form independent trade unions and are free to practice collective negotiation, will their rights be protected. This is where we come in.