Jan. 23, 2004 – As people across China and the world gear-up to celebrate the Lunar New Year on Thursday, several recent media reports have illustrated the continuing plight of working people in a country that is feeling the effects of privatization and corporate globalization.
A series of reports in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, for example, described the exploitation of internal migrant workers employed in the construction industry.
The export of labor to fuel property construction in big cities is often a lucrative business, writes Post reporter Josephine Ma, and many workers are sent from rural provinces to work in Chinaâ€™s growing urban centers. Around 850,000 registered migrant workers are employed in Beijing alone, with about 30 million nationwide. The actual number of migrants, however, including the number of undocumented workers, is thought to be much higher.
Often residing in shacks on construction sites, earning about 30-50 yuan (US $3.90-$6.40) per day, and working in hazardous conditions, the world of migrant workers is described as one of â€œextreme hardship and loneliness.â€� Seen in context, their situation is perhaps a reflection of Chinaâ€™s widening gap between rich and poor. One telling statement in the Post story, for example, came from Zhao Daying, a lawyer representing one of the migrant workers. â€œWhat they [migrant workers] eat,â€� Zhao said, â€œis worse than what urban residents feed their cats and dogs.â€�
In addition to this, migrant laborers in the construction industry are usually only paid once a year, before the Lunar New Year holiday season. This system has led to serious abuses on the part of employers, many of whom disappear right before the workers are due to be paid. Some workers do not recover their lost wages for years. The IHLO, a Hong Kong liaison office for several major international trade union bodies, estimates that total wage arrears owed to migrant workers in China run upwards of US $800 million.
The result is that Chinaâ€™s construction industry â€œis a hotbed of disgruntled, unpaid workers,â€� writes the Post.
Officials were made to hear the grievances of several workers at the 14th Congress of the State-run All China Federation of Trade Unions. The IHLOâ€™s report of the event noted that workers from across China voiced such concerns as why some companies were allowed to get away with preventing employees from unionising, while others pointed out the vast differences between union officials and ordinary workers.
Many workers show their discontent in more direct ways, however, often with dire consequences. The Post reported that one worker, Hu Weiguo, was killed after confronting the contracting company that owed him and 70 other workers some 120,000 yuan for over two years. Another worker, Yang Tao, set himself on fire near the West Beijing Railway Station on January 16. Yang was desperate to collect the 60,000 yuan that he and 30 of his colleagues were owed in back wages. The same report described the scene outside the recently created Back-Wages Clearance Office, where workers gather everyday in the hope of pressuring officials to recover what they are owed.
Several reports in Xinhua this week also serve to highlight the issue of occupational health and safety abuses that are rampant in China. The agency reported on January 19 that further arrests had been made in connection with a major disaster at a natural gas well in Chongqing in December 2003, in which a well at the Chuandongbei natural gas field exploded. The explosion released a poisonous substance, sulfurated hydrogen, into the air, killing 243 people.
The arrests included that of a high-level engineer and oil well director, with the State Council declaring that the tragedy was a result of â€œnegligence and dereliction of dutyâ€� on the part of management. Hu Shuli, the editor of investigative journalism magazine Cajing, writes that the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is itself to blame for the disaster through its ignorance of safety laws and provisions. She goes on to say that â€œCNPC's problem is not an isolated one. It is closely related to China's inadequate system of enforcing the safety measuresâ€¦â€�
The government also released this week its latest statistics on the number of deaths in the coal mining industry. Official figures from the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) show that over 2,110 workers were killed in 596 explosions in Chinese coal mines in 2003, a slightly lower figure than the previous year. Xinhua published a report about the subsequent National Conference on Industrial Safety, during which Vice-Premier Huang Ju conceded, â€œChina still faces a stark and grave situation in the field of industrial safety, though the situation was improving as a whole from last year.â€�
John Chen, a labor researcher and writer in Hong Kong notes that Chinese authorities were being forced by the number of deaths and injuries, as well as the level of unrest, to address issues of urgent importance to workers in the country. These issues pertain not only to migrants and mine workers, Chen says, but also to workers in Chinaâ€™s rapidly industrializing areas, particularly the low-tech secondary industries in Special Economic Zones. â€œCorporate globalization and the rapid influx of capital to these areas,â€� he notes â€œHas increased the potential for astounding abuses of occupational health and safety laws, and workersâ€™ rights.
â€œThe current situation is unsustainable, and authorities fear they will eventually face a backlash.â€�
The IHLO acknowledges that the situation is complex, but cites as an â€œoverwhelming flawâ€� the fact that freedom of association and the forming of independent workersâ€™ organizations are banned in China. Unfortunately, this looks set to continue into the Year of the Monkey.