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

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid