By Kevin Lin, International Labor Rights Forum

In 2009, Time magazine selected "The Chinese Worker" as the runner-up of its Person of the Year.

Reflecting on China’s eight-percent economic growth rate one year after the global financial crisis, the magazine asked, "Who deserves the credit? Above all, the tens of millions of workers who have left their homes, and often their families, to find work in the factories of China’s booming coastal cities… Chinese men and women, their struggles in the past, their thoughts on the present and their eyes on the future."

Leading up to 2009, labor dispute cases and workers’ strikes skyrocketed in China. Workers were becoming more confident in their ability to organize and pressure their employers and the local authorities for better conditions and legal protection. It created real momentum for labor reforms.

Chinese workers have since benefited from their government’s labor reforms. Government-mandated minimum wages increased significantly and real wages were growing. The government-endorsed the legitimacy of workers’ rights protection. In 2018, the government enacted legal reforms such as the Labor Contract Law to strengthen legal protection, offering dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve workplace grievances.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions trialed union reforms that increased union membership and recognized workers’ role in negotiating with employers through collective bargaining. Awareness and protection of occupational health and safety also increased. There has been greater recognition of the importance of protecting female workers against discrimination in hiring and promotion. Institutionalized urban discrimination against rural migrant workers has decreased and rural migrant workers have more access to urban amenities as a result of hukou reforms.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Locals and retired workers watch a Chinese opera performance that Xinyuan Steel put on outside its factory to mark the end of Chinese New Year festivities in Anyang, Henan province, China, February 19, 2019.

But in other respects, Chinese workers have either not gained significantly or lost ground.

Reforms to curb informalization of labor have not stopped the use of agency workers who are paid less than their co-workers or student interns forced by their schools to work in jobs unrelated to their studies. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of rural migrant workers with a labor contract declined from 43.9 percent in 2012 to 35.1 percent in 2016.

The labor reforms under the Hu-Wen administration aimed to accommodate workers’ interests and incorporate workers into the industrial relations system. Yet labor strikes continued to increase after 2009. Large-scale factory strikes took place each year over low wages, non- or underpayment of social insurance contributions, and lack of layoff compensation.

This was partly due to China’s slowing economic growth triggering more disputes and problematic reforms. Barriers remain in accessing legal mechanisms for resolving disputes. The union reforms were top-down and bureaucratic — workers were not empowered to negotiate with management.

By mid-2010s, the Chinese government began to show its growing impatience with the labor reforms. The clearest sign of this was the closing down of non-government labor rights organizations in Guangzhou and the arrests of their staff who worked to protect workers’ rights and promote collective bargaining in December 2015.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A worker holds a tray of rose pastries at a factory that makes flower pastries, in Kunming, Yunnan province, China May 7, 2018.

The crackdown had chilling effects among labor groups and signaled the government’s intention to criminalize independent rights advocacy. It was part of a broader political shift preceded by the arrests of human rights activists, lawyers, anti-discrimination and feminist activists a few months earlier.

In mid-2018, a unionization drive by workers at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen precipitated a new round of repression against workers and college students who came out to support them. The repression has since widened and spread to other labor activists unconnected to Jasic.

The nature of state repression is shifting from punitive to pre-emptive. Authorities are rounding up activists who are capable of helping workers rather than for any specific actions they have taken. Space for workers to organize labor rights movement has been narrowed to its slimmest in the last decade.

The optimism for more labor reforms from a decade ago now seems extinguished. Labor reforms have either stalled or lost momentum altogether. There has been no major labor legislation for several years and union reforms have stopped.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People hold banners at a demonstration in support of factory workers of Jasic Technology, outside Yanziling police station in Pingshan district, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, August 6, 2018.

New challenges to labor relations are emerging. Unemployment is a key government concern. Manufacturing jobs are moving into inland regions and out of China in search of cheaper labor. Automation is threatening jobs in factories and the US-China trade war is creating uncertainty for Chinese industries.

Work facilitated by digital platforms seems to offer an employment solution and an escape from factory jobs. Whether the logistics and service sectors will generate enough employment for the millions whose jobs may be disappearing in the coming years remains to be seen. The Chinese government is encouraging migrant workers to go back and start their own businesses.

The turn toward pre-emptive repression seems capable of keeping a tight lid on civil society organizations and workers’ protests and will likely continue. As labor organizing declines in manufacturing, mobilization in the logistics and service sectors is rising sharply. Strikes have taken place among Walmart retail workers, truck drivers, crane operators, delivery drivers, teachers and taxi drivers in recent years.

In the technology sector, workers mobilizing online in early 2019 against the "996" work schedule — working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week — gained widespread public support.

At a time when China’s labor relations are changing and facing new realities, it is time for more and deeper reforms that recognize workers’ roles in negotiating their work conditions and do not see their rights advocacy as a political threat to be managed with criminalization.

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