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

Diplomats Work to Extend Arab-Israeli Cease-Fire

Top officials from the US, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar gather in Paris, while Israel security forces continue searching for tunnels used by militants and Gazan rescue workers search for bodies More

Photogallery US Defense Department Warns of Arms to Eastern Ukraine

‘Imminent’ delivery of Russian rocket launcher poses threat to civilians, US says More

Video Researchers: Africa Genetically Modified Crops Held Back by Scaremongering

GM crops offer best hope of increasing productivity and coping with climate change in Africa, according to co-author of Chatham House report More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train in Underwater Labi
X
George Putic
July 25, 2014 7:25 PM
In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid