News / Asia

China Seeks to Assure Workers of Stability

Workers stand on scaffolding at a road construction site in Beijing (File).Workers stand on scaffolding at a road construction site in Beijing (File).
x
Workers stand on scaffolding at a road construction site in Beijing (File).
Workers stand on scaffolding at a road construction site in Beijing (File).
Ivan Broadhead
HONG KONG - The Chinese government is seeking to reassure workers of their rights, a move activists say highlights Beijing's concern that possible labor unrest could cause disruptions to social stability. 

China's latest economic figures indicate the country's robust economic growth continues to slow, with exports, industrial output and retail sales posting lower growth than last year.

The numbers also indicate that inflation and rising consumer prices have slowed - a key goal of leaders worried about the needs of hundreds of millions of middle and lower class workers.

Wealth disparity

But there is one economic indicator that continues to be a major concern for officials trying to maintain social stability: wealth disparity. The main economic indicator of the wealth gap - a measurement known as the gini coefficient - has not been released by authorities in more than a decade.

Premier Wen Jiabao recently visited bus drivers and sanitation workers in Beijing to reassure them of his commitment to worker rights. The visits did not occur by chance, says Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.

"These two groups, over the last two or three years, have been at the forefront of labor activism in China. They’re the groups, apart from factory workers, who are most likely to go on strike. I’m sure it’s no coincidence [Wen] picked those two groups to give his support - saying these workers should be more respected and better valued in society," said Crothall.

China's 220 million migrant laborers, known disparagingly as waidi ren or "outsiders," continue to work long hours in poor conditions.

In an effort to preserve worker harmony, the government has encouraged salary increases among the lowest paid in society. The National Bureau of Statistics reported last week that rural migrant workers saw average pay gains of 21 percent in 2011. In Shanghai, the minimum wage has risen 14 percent on the year. Similar rises are being implemented in the Pearl River Delta region, China’s industrial heartland.

More expectations

However, unlike their parents, blue-collar workers today desire more than just a monthly pay check, observes Alexandra Harney, author of The China Price - the True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage.

"Workers expectations have risen; for their lives, for their jobs," she said. "They are looking for experiences, but also to build careers. And one of the persistent fears I hear when I talk to workers in factories is that they find their jobs really boring; that they don’t really have many other options."

Workers have made other gains beyond improved wages, for instance they are increasingly comfortable asserting their legal rights under legislation, including the 2008 Labor Contract Law. Ken DeWoskin, director of the Deloitte China Research and Insight Center, believes those glaring disparities in the distribution of wealth add considerably to working class woes.

"They see cars that cost more money than their families have ever earned in their entire lives," he said. "There’s a sense of potential but also of frustration if they’re earning minimum wage, to have so much luxury and so much wealth in their face all the time. I think there’s a crisis in China of conspicuous consumption."

The hukou system

That dissatisfaction is compounded by China’s long-standing hukou system, which prevents migrant workers accessing a full range of social services - including health and schooling for their children - outside their home provinces.

The working class also bears the brunt of still widespread official corruption. Last week, four people died when a government office in Yunnan province was bombed. The main suspect is reportedly a woman angered by local officials who requisitioned her land to sell to developers at a vast profit.

Despite some improvements in worker rights, data gathered by the China Labor Bulletin reveal a higher incidence of strikes in China these last two months than at any time since it began daily monitoring of worker unrest in 2010.

Lessons from Japan, South Korea

Professor Karel Williams of Manchester University Business School argues China needs to look to the economic models implemented by Japan and South Korea, not just to grow the skills and prosperity of its workforce, but to move the country to the next phase of its development.

"We have a future where China’s competitive advantage is eroded by rising wages and rising exchange rates. It has to stop being a low-wage payer and build major corporates with R&D capabilities and the ability to produce branded goods," said Williams.

Historically, China has shown great elasticity in coping with disparities in wealth, says DeWoskin, and China’s laborers are not likely catalysts for the type of dissent sweeping the Middle East.

"In China, dramatic change generally happens because an alternate power center arises under an alternate leader. Then you have a competition between leaders. Much of what we are seeing politically today is less a result of an ideological struggle and a popular uprising than it is the working-out of great difficulties between various factions in the government," said DeWoskin.

China's once-a-decade transition of power occurs later this year during the Communist Party's 18th National Congress. In the months leading up to the leadership handover, officials are likely to be highly sensitive to labor unrest and its affect on the country's stability.

You May Like

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Crowdfunding Helps Save Neil Armstrong's Spacesuit

Smithsonian turns to Kickstarter to raise more than $700,000 to help preserve the spacesuit worn by the first man to walk on the moon More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs