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Migrant Women Workers in China Organize - 2002-07-03

Migrant workers in China long subjected to labor abuses are beginning to fight for their rights. Labor disputes are rising, and unprecedented numbers of workers file formal complaints against employers. One organization in Beijing helps train migrant women workers to protect themselves against exploitation.

Miao Minyuan likes to begin her support group for migrant women workers with a Communist battle anthem.

Dozens of young women from villages across China stand together in a cramped Beijing office, and sing "unity is strength."

"This strength is more powerful than iron or steel," the revolutionary song goes. "Fight to defeat all undemocratic systems."

When the song is over, Ms. Miao, a counselor at the Home for Migrant Women, addresses the women in their teens and early 20s. Most have traveled hundreds of kilometers to find a job in the Chinese capital.

"You are all alone here in Beijing," Ms. Miao tells her rapt audience. She says, "your parents are not here to protect you, so you must rely on yourself. Believe in yourself and assert your rights."

As China's migrant worker population swells to more than 100 million, support groups like this one are emerging to help raise awareness especially among women - about labor rights.

Xie Lihua founded Beijing's Home for Migrant Women in 1996 with partial funding from the U.S.-based non-profit Ford Foundation. She also edits a magazine called Rural Women Knowing All, which targets migrant women.

Ms. Xie says young migrant women suffer from loneliness and a lack of self-esteem. The women have left their families in the countryside because they need to send money home. But Ms. Xie says they are overwhelmed by oppressive living conditions in the city, and brutal treatment by employers.

Ms. Xie says these women have a desperate need for role models and friends to help increase their confidence. The women also need legal advice to help them cope with common abuses such as the withholding of wages, sexual harassment and even rape.

According to labor specialists, migrant women are paid a fraction of men's wages. They therefore comprise most of the workforce in labor-intensive industries.

Anita Chan is a Chinese labor expert at the Australian National University. Ms. Chan says unlike laid-off state workers who stage frequent protests - especially in China's industrial northeast migrants tend to stay silent about labor abuses. "It doesn't mean the workers don't complain; they do complain, but usually at the point when they run out of money completely," she said. "They have been owed wages for so long they cannot even buy food, or send money home."

China forbids independent labor unions, and often imprisons workers who organize large protests. But China's 1995 labor law guarantees overtime pay, a minimum wage and union representation, among other things.

Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese media has increasingly published exposes about labor law violations. As a result, Ms. Chan says some workers are starting to fight back through China's dispute settlement system. "Labor disputes have been rising, disputes that go through the formal channels, like if you go to a trade union, or a local labor bureau, or an inspection team," said Anita Chan. "You lodge a complaint, then it goes through arbitration and the court system." According to the International Labor Organization, workers brought 33,000 complaints to China's dispute settlement system in 1995. In 2000, that figure had soared to almost half a million, 15 times higher in just several years.

The ILO report says most disputes are caused by unpaid or late wages. Laborers also file complaints over excessive hours and injuries from unsafe work conditions.

Yet labor rights law remains a risky profession in China. Chinese authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen ordered labor lawyer Zhou Litai to shut down his practice there. Mr. Zhou is famous for winning compensation for hundreds of clients wounded in work-related accidents.

Still, there are occasional victories for aggrieved workers. Last April, a Chinese court awarded compensation in a class action lawsuit brought by 230 migrant workers in the eastern province, Zhejiang. The workers developed lung disease while digging a tunnel.

At the Beijing Home for Migrant Women, labor rights lawyer Zhou Wanling likes to focus on the battles won rather than lost. This early Sunday morning the only time the women are off work, Ms. Zhou explains how to file a lawsuit against an abusive employer.

"When you start a job, you must sign a contract stating the hours you work and your pay," Ms. Zhou advises the group. "That way, if your rights are violated, you have legal protection."

"Above all, do not sign a life or death contract that forces you to work 12 hours a day, with no compensation for injuries," she says. "If you do not speak out, nobody else can help you."