The Conditions of Migrant Workers in Shenzhen: A Discussion with a Rural Migrant Workers’ Rights Activist

by Shui Mui, China Left Review (Issue # 4) — (researcher, mainly focusing on migrant workers and labor-capital relations)

In March, 2009, I interviewed a Shenzhen based migrant workers’ rights activist. The interview helps us better comprehend the current conditions of migrant workers in China.

1. Workplace Injuries

A Hong Kong NGO put out a report (Arms and Legs), which discussed workplace injuries in China. At present in Shenzhen, many factories adopted new machinery equipped with infrared technologies, which could help prevent workers’ injuries. But that didn’t mean that older machinery left the Chinese scene altogether, it just moved inland. Still, Shenzhen’s rate of workplace injuries did not decrease, they only became more intense. Many 18-25 year old workers who just started working were injured in the first few days of work. This was because at many factories there was no training for newly hired workers.

Small factories owned by local investors are well below standard. When workplace injury related incidents occur, bosses frequently jump ship. Many workers’ injuries are not covered by regulations on the books that ensure workplace injury insurance. Electronics and shoe factories use a great amount of chemicals during production, without needed measures to prevent workplace poisoning. Smaller scale factories are especially weak in this area. Most of the workers in electronics factories are women, accounting for 70-80 percent of the workforce. Their work has a great impact on their reproductive systems, and the frequency of their falling ill is quite high. This is not only a problem for individual women workers, it also affects the next generation of offspring. One of the staff at University of Science and Engineering opened a battery factory where the majority of women workers fell ill to cadmium poisoning. One of these workers gave birth to an infant with a large black stripe on its body, which no one could explain. There have emerged many new chemicals used in factories are not covered by Chinese law. It’s estimate that in the next few years, rates of factory dust related lung disease will surge. This amounts to the end of the incubation period for diseases acquired since the process of economic liberalization began. Grinder’s disease, especially prevalent among miners, has already ended countless workers’ lives. Others with the disease are simply waiting to die.

Since the labor shortage that started in 2004, it should be noted that women workers are also finding it easier to secure jobs. Because women are regarded as more physically nimble, more obedient thanks to traditional culture in the countryside, much like previous generations of women workers in Korea, factory owners are predisposed to hiring them. Furthermore, if women workers look to fight for their rights, they typically have a much harder time than male counterparts.

2. Compensation and Work Hours Issues

In 2005 and 2005, except for larger factories where overtime pay remained consistent with previous standards, in other factories owners were not even in line with Chinese law as concerns minimum base wages. Many factories only give an additional 1 Yuan for overtime. Workers are required to work over 300 hours a month and and see only Y 900-1,000 for a monthly wage. The minimum wage has increased quite a bit in the past few years. This is because of the many collective protests by workers. It’s also due to the fact that workers have put forth demands for more than simply what the law requires as a minimum wage; they’ve also demanded the establishment of unions controlled by the rank and file with elections of workers’ representatives.

As Chinese workers’ consciousness has increased, objective conditions have likewise undergone change as a result. Many workers’ rights activists have tended to promote the need to go through legal channels to secure workers’ rights. As a consequence, the raising of rights awareness has greatly influenced Pearl River Delta workers. Additionally, the migrant labor shortage has made leaving factories in search of new work easier. The reason for this labor shortage was not only media hype about a lack of skilled workers; indeed, unskilled production workers were also in high demand. With GDP growth at such high rates in recent years, increasing industrial upgrading that accompanied it necessitated a greater number of wage laborers. Also, wages and work environments were truly too harsh for today’s workers who are not willing to simply put up with such inhuman conditions in order to make a wage. Horrible work conditions now lead workers to want to frequently change jobs, leading companies to constantly need to hire new workers to replace workers who frequently quit. This scenario contributed to the existence of a ‘demand bubble,’ in China’s labor market, which would appear to have only intensified China’s “migrant labor shortage.” Prior to the economic crisis, labor turnover rates hovered around 6%, meaning that a factory with 2,000 workers saw over a hundred workers leaving yearly.

In 2006 and 2007, the adjustments made in the minimum wage were greatest because consumer goods price inflation combined with the migrant labor shortage. In 2008, Guangdong Province did not raise it again and from August 2008 many factories saw workers carrying out strikes. These workers struck because when they received their checks they discovered there had been no increases. What started out as spontaneous and simultaneous strikes at two electronics factories soon spread to nearby factories.

The Labor Contract Law’s implementation during strikes has had a recognizable effect. Before the law was passed, where there were strikes the majority were by skilled workers with typically 10 or more years of seniority. Yet there also were large numbers of older women workers in shoe and electronics factories who could not find new work as easily as younger women workers, and who hoped to stay on in their current jobs.

After the Labor Contract Law passed in 2008, there were new workers’ protests. In most instances, the government and factory owners’ interests were tightly aligned., In one well known case, the Shenzhen based Dagongzhe Migrant Workers’ Center’s spreading word of the Labor Contract Law offended the factory owners, who paid off thugs to brutally beat and disfigure Huang Qingnan, a migrant workers’ rights activist at the Center. On July 11, 2008, on the eve of this incident, there were many instances of factory administrators going to the workers’ center and stirring up trouble. However, the government took a hands off approach to the matter, which acted as a signal to the owners as to what kind of strategy it should take when dealing with the Center. In the Pearl River Delta region, most factories are rented out to local residents whose ties to the government are tight knit. This puts migrant workers’ rights activists at a disadvantage.

Companies place wages at the lowest level permitted for Shenzhen residents at Y1,000 and Y900 for non-residents. Given the standard of living, this is hardly enough for a worker who is left with little choice but to work many hours overtime. With the onset of the financial crisis, it was common for workers to work 11-12 hours Monday through Saturday, with Sundays occasionally off. At some factories, workers would go a whole month without a day off, reaching as many as 300 work hours in one month. Workers came to sense that their lives barely resembled those of human beings; factory life amounted to a depressing nightmare. Women migrant workers, who sought to escape the stifling and repressed rural life, discovered that factory life gave them virtually no free time, no energy to think about much else other than work, this created bigger problems for us. Women who once never experienced menstrual pains were now suddenly having them, but asking for a day off was very difficult.

The situation differed according to the source of factory investment. For example, at Taiwanese owned companies, every morning called for a morning and evening ‘meeting’ system. Every morning before shifts and every evening after shifts, workers had to listen to their managers at ‘pep’ sessions. This time was unpaid. One worker put it, “This is basically just propaganda work, to make us afraid, paralyzed, and obedient.”

3. The Impact of the Financial Crisis on Workers’ Protests

The influence of the financial crisis began in September, 2009, though it differed on a case by case basis. At some factories, every department saw layoffs of up about 35%. The ways owners laid off workers differed. In many cases, workers were left with no way to go through legal channels to deal with the layoff. For example, if a company transferred a skilled worker to a lower post, their wages would drop significantly. When faced with that, a worker in the early period of the crisis didn’t sense that there was a crisis and would assume they could easily find another job elsewhere and voluntarily quit their present job. As a result, a company would not have to give any severance pay to the worker. Further, when a worker dealt with this as an individual by leaving, this lowered the possibility of collective protest.

At other factories, factory owners suddenly would require physicals. Those workers who did not meet the standards were told to leave, thus avoiding the need to pay severance for a lay-off. In other cases, many Taiwanese owners who had been constantly expanding their scales of production did not anticipate the economic crisis. They hired many temporary workers who could be laid off easily. Some factories prohibited overtime even though the base wage for workers was much too low. As a result, without overtime, many workers were forced to ‘voluntarily’ quit and look elsewhere for work. Another tactic employed would be spreading out layoffs by department and in each one laying off only 2 or 3. In one shot that would amount to a total of 50 or 60 laid off, but since they were not all in one department, workers were unable to collectively react in unison. Or they could use the excuse that workers’ output did not meet the standard—even when workers had worked for many years and were skilled.

The Labor Contract Law, Article 41, stipulates that when laying off more than 20 workers at a time, the factory owner must inform the union and get their feedback before it can proceed. However, factories inevitably resort to “failure to meet work expectations’ as the reason for dismissals, in which case the union need not be notified since a layoff has not occurred.

When it came to layoffs, owners had many tricks at their disposal. At the start of discussions on layoffs, companies prepared in advance a set amount of severance pay. However, they would lie to the workers and claim they were not going to distribute severance pay, thereby compelling workers to go to them to secure it. When workers collectively put forth this amount as their demand, the company would immediately agree to it. The workers, weighing the pros and cons, would not think that according to the Labor Contract Law they were able to win still more severance, and with that not put forth additional demands, thus eroding the power workers attempted to exercise.

Of course the greatest impact came from trends in the courts. In October, 2008, decisions began to blatantly favor capitalists. Prior to this period, decisions were relatively fair, in accordance with the Labor Contract Law’s provisions—and noticeably better than before there was a Labor Contract Law. However, starting from around September and October 2008, interpretations of the law were more heavily on the side of factory owners. This was so even in cases where there was no support for owners’ positions according to the Labor Contract Law. Government officials would mobilize owners to do education sessions on the law in their respective factories, distribute notices to be placed on factory billboards telling workers how disputes were to be settled, and inform workers what kinds of demands would be supported, which ones would not be acceptable. By telling owners what kinds of demands for severance were acceptable by the courts, owners could lowball their offers of severance and in the end have to pay out less to workers. Also, before mediation or court hearings, where once owners were required to put forth evidence, now workers were the ones expected to do so. However, where could workers go to find such evidence for their cases? In many factories, workers didn’t even receive a receipt for their wages.

In May 2008, with the launching of a new “Mediation and Arbitration Law”, workers could go directly to arbitration without going through mediation first. Now, however, labor arbitral tribunals require that workers go through mediation over and over. However, mediation proves to be useless since most workers only to go mediation after having left their jobs and living expenses are not secure while they are expected to wait a half a year or more for an arbitrator to reach a decision. This is because most of the arbitration cases emerged after the arbitration fee was cancelled, which on top of the mounting economic crisis left the court system utterly unable to cope with this burden.

Workers returning back this year have only just begun to sense the reality of this economic crisis. In the past, workers would quit their jobs in large numbers before the start of the Chinese New Year Festival, but they could expect that factories would be hiring after the New Year. This year is different, the number of factories hiring has decreased substantially and those that are hiring are hiring far fewer workers. Now workers are sensing the difficulty of finding new jobs and when their rights are violated in the workplace, it’s that much more difficult for them to just up and quit and find new jobs. Nevertheless, there are still workers’ protests taking place; when companies lower wages, benefits, and the like, workers will collectively go on strike. As a result, individual workers’ anxiousness about being fired has decreased somewhat.

Local governments increased their support for owners since the onset of the financial crisis, which we see appear in the form of the direct oppression of migrant workers. Lately it’s been said that near Fo Shan Mountain there is a lighting factory that experienced a strike by several dozen workers because of a wage dispute. At the time of the strike the works were inside the factory in an open space that was unutilized, and didn’t leave the factory area. The local government sent a riot squad to repress the workers. The workers angrily fought back and in the end thirty workers were arrested, one of whom has not been released to date. This was because he was a retired soldier who beat up several of the police officers. This kind of incident was unheard of in the past; ordinarily as long as workers stain within the confines of the factory, the local government will not send in anti-riot squads.

Now we worry that in instances where there has not occurred a bankruptcy and due to mass layoffs there occurs a dispute between workers and owners, workers will face severe repression from the local government. Workers’ protests might decrease as a result. Nonetheless, workers are beginning to change because they worry about losing their jobs. Most of them are from rural areas where the living conditions are very poor. They neither can nor wish to return. Now when we discuss labor rights and the like with them, they show great interest. In the past, younger workers were conscious of their rights. But now workers are very concerned about what kinds of protections they have in terms of unemployment insurance, health care insurance, etc. Only when they had been pushed to the brink and left with little other choice did their protests become more militant. Recently there was a case of a worker who was let go who committed an act of self-immolation. As workers are laid off due to company bankruptcies and labor disputes emerge, local governments only seek ways to get workers to return to the countryside as quickly as possible. They show no concern about whether or not there is work to be had upon their return or if that will be of no help to their need to solve their crisis of unemployment.

4. Chinese Workers’ Future

A majority of coastal factories are export oriented and from February to May every year secure purchase orders . Yet as the US and European economies have not fully recovered, we can anticipate that the near future will see another wave of factory bankruptcies. Purchase orders from western companies are also changing. They used to typically comprise very large, long term orders. Now they are more likely to be smaller and requiring shorter times to fill. Given that, companies will be more likely to employ temporary workers who might even go a month or longer without overtime or even work and then have to work an insane amount of overtime the following month. This kind of worker need not bother thinking about benefits or secure wages. Subcontracting to smaller sized factories will become more common and, given their lack of subjection to regulation, the abuses we face at work will only increase.

Presently, in the Pearl River Delta region, there is a large number of lawyers who help factories deal with labor issues. They’ve even come up with a ‘middle of the night escape clause,’ whereby an enterprise’s legal person is changed from the factory boss to a Taiwanese relative. As a result, workers have a much more difficult time finding someone to deal with wage or benefits issues. At some factories, lawyers are given as much as sixty thousand Yuan who seem to specialize in dragging out arbitration processes and wearing workers down.

Yet, this also a turning point that brings opportunity. Most of the workers we dealt with were unskilled younger workers (18-25) with little spare time and leisurely activities. Their educational levels are typically lower and rarely take much interest in social problems. Furthermore, taking into account the reality that incomes are still enough to live on in the last few years, our efforts to organize them face difficulties. Nonetheless, the objective conditions are undergoing transition, and migrant workers’ consciousness is being raised. They comprehend issues now that did not come so easily in the past. Thus, as we offer works services, entertainment and leisure activities that support a more humane approach to life, it has become easier to carry out our organizing work.

Translated by Stephen Philion

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