China's migrant labour flexes its muscle

Labour disputes in southern China’s booming Guangdong province are becoming increasingly prominent as an unprecedented army of 30-million migrant workers clamours for better conditions and treatment.

This astonishing influx of cheap labour has been the engine of China’s capitalist miracle, officials say, making Guangdong the nation’s most prosperous region.

It has also turned the Pearl River Delta into an export-oriented manufacturing hub, from Hong Kong in the east to Foshan in the west.

But as the government tries to maintain the image of an investor’s paradise based on low production costs, the workers, increasingly backed by state media, labour rights groups and even the courts, are clamoring for an end to slave-like working conditions.

“There are several causes of worker disputes, but the leading reason is when enterprises don’t pay salaries,” said Wang Guanyu, director of the Guangdong Labour and Employment Service and Administrative Center.

“The workers are very aware of their need to protect themselves so if there are violations, they will complain directly about it.” Another cause is the sweatshop conditions at many factories, including low pay, seven-day work weeks, 15-hour working days, mandatory overtime, a poor working environment and often coercive factory regulations.

Recent riots at the Taiwan-invested Stella International shoe factory in Dongguan and a spate of other smaller workers’ strikes and walkouts in the region reflect the growing sense of labour strife.

“There is not a factory in Dongguan that abides by the Labour Law. I would say 50% to 60% of the factories here make you work seven days a week,” said a worker surnamed Wu who toils at the city’s Henghui packaging factory.

The Labour Law mandates a 40-hour, five-day work week and a range of worker benefits.

Wang said the government’s hands were too full trying to administer the migrant rush into Guangdong—with numbers jumping from five million registered workers in 1995 to 10-million in 2001 and nearly 20-million in 2004—to concentrate solely on labour issues.

Only registered workers who have had jobs for at least six months are included in the figures, with another 10-million unregistered workers also estimated to have met the six-month working criteria.

A further 10-million more could be looking for work, Wang said.

This gives Guangdong by far the largest share of China’s officially estimated 140-million migrant workers. Another around six million are in Shanghai and five million in the capital Beijing.

Most of the workers in Guangdong are under 35, more than half are women and they largely come from impoverished inland provinces like Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Guangxi and Guizhou.

Many are engaged in light industrial manufacturing, including electronics, as well as cheap Chinese textiles like plastics, shoes, clothes, toys and furniture that are mainstays in markets worldwide.

The government’s priority is creating more jobs by attracting investment and building more factories, and the implementation of legally mandated labour rights and benefits should be brought about with “market forces,” Wang said.

“Generally speaking, we want to raise the quality and effectiveness of our labour force and this will mean higher wages and better benefits, but this is a process that will take time,” Wang said.

“Right now we are hoping to allow the market to work for itself.

If factories want a stable work force and don’t want to see their trained workers leaving for other factories, then they are going to have to pay them better and give them better benefits.” Besides, it is nearly impossible to monitor work conditions at the tens of thousands of factories that have mushroomed in the region over the past 20 years, he said, admitting that labour laws and regulations were hard to enforce.

Reports last month by China’s only legal trade union—the government-run All China Federation of Trade Unions—and the Communist Party-administered Jiusan research group showed migrants made up 35% of Guangdong’s work force and were responsible for 25% of its GDP last year.

However in the past 12 years their salaries have only risen 68 yuan ($8) on average, said the reports, cited by the Yangcheng Evening News.

Three-quarters of migrant workers in Guangdong made less than 1 000 yuan a month ($120), with most of the rest earning less. Average monthly costs totalled 500 yuan.

By comparison, the average monthly salary for a non-migrant worker in Guangdong was 1 675 yuan.

Despite regulations that call on factories to give all workers retirement insurance, only half of migrant workers had any, the reports said.

Such conditions have resulted large numbers of migrant workers frequently changing jobs.

Wang insisted that while conditions were difficult, “there are a lot of benefits too”.

“Migrant workers in Guangdong made some 30-billion yuan last year, that is about an average of 8 000 yuan a year per worker, much of that money goes back to their poor rural hometowns,” he said.—Sapa/AFP

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