New Internationalist

Where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish

Issue 371

To whose voices is the Chinese Communist Party listening – the capitalists' or the workers'? Chris Richards tunes in.

Chris Richards

SHE is only 36 years old. Yet when you look at her, you know that every part of her is wearing out. Her whole body sags.

Sometimes she works all day and through the night into the early hours of the morning. After all, there are many costs that come with living in the city. And she has many people in her family to support.

Li Siuling is a migrant worker: just one of 130 million who have left their rural communities to find work in the prosperous eastern cities. The money that she and others like her send back now makes up more than half of the income of the peasants and rural workers in the Chinese hinterland.

Suiling was only 15 when she left Anhui province, not far from Shanghai. It was soon after her father had died. On offer in the city were the menial, dangerous or difficult jobs that are always poorly paid. At first she worked in a restaurant, making 100 yuan ($12.10) a month while the city citizens working with her earned five times that amount. Then she sold clothes, earning 350 yuan ($42.35) while her urban colleagues took home 900. It was just one of the prejudices that she has had to face.

There are four others. After 20 years – like most Chinese citizens who move away from the household where they are officially registered – she still pays an annual fee for a temporary residence permit. Effectively, it registers her as a second-class citizen within her own country. It deprives her of a vote in local elections. It deprives her children of the right to free education. It exposes her to harassment from a police force strapped for cash. Indeed, the police came to her house around midnight once, demanding to see her permit. When she produced it, they tore it up in front of her. Then they fined her for not being able to produce her documents, and jailed her when she wouldn't pay.

The fifth prejudice cursing migrant workers has largely escaped her. Many who have lived in the city for as long as she has done are often unmarried and socially dislocated. But she has a husband – a migrant worker like her, from her province.

Li Siuling lives in Beijing. In Guangzhou, the capital of the southeastern province of Guangdong, I sit at a table with seven representatives of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to find out whether her story is a common one here, too. Yes, they say, except that after seven years of working in Guangzhou, migrant workers can apply for permanent residence and the social entitlements that go with it.

They tell me that in March last year, Sun Zhigang – a young man from a northern province who worked in a Guangzhou garment company – was taken to a police station because he didn't have a temporary residence permit. He later died from the beating he received there. The public outcry that followed has led to reform of, but not an end to, the system of citizen registration.

The new face of labour

Migrant workers now form the country's main industrial workforce. There are an estimated 20 million of them presently in Guangdong alone. And they are in high demand. China is the factory of the world's manufacturers, and this province is one of its main production lines.

The transnational brands pouring from Guangdong's factories read like a corporate who's who. Economic growth here is staggering. It took Britain most of the 19th century to increase its per capita income by two and a half times, and Japan from 1950 to 1975 to improve its by six. Guangdong's per capita income since 1978 has increased 60-fold. A promotional book about the province says that by 2002, the amount of the province's import and export transactions with countries around the world totalled as much as that of Russia and twice that of India.1

The road from the coastal city of Shenzhen (another economic power-zone within the province) to Guangzhou is just over 200 kilometres: a virtually uninterrupted line of factories. A grey haze folds over the horizon. At the halfway mark, the factories seem to take up all the space that the eye can see – blocks after blocks after yet more blocks of grey cement and grey corrugated iron line up into the distance. Inside the larger factories 20,000, 30,000, even 70,000 people work. To an entrepreneur, this must be nirvana. To me it looks like hell.

Capitalism speaks

Taking this journey, the conclusion that corporations have freedom to speak and be heard in this country is inescapable. Local authorities here have been given special powers to govern their own economies. They have long ago learnt the language that attracts investment: special economic zones, tax havens and neglected labour regulations.

So too the Chinese Communist Party, whose government has nurtured this new culture. In November 2002, Jiang Zemin – the country's President at the time – announced that entrepreneurs would henceforth have both membership and a voice in making decisions within the Party. This only formalized what had already been happening. In the Forbes magazine list of China's 100 richest in 2002, a quarter said they were CCP members,2 and nine were delegates to China's law-making body, the National People's Congress.3

Just as big business is now being officially heard in Government, workers' representative committees and trade unions have a legal right to be heard in management. The catch is that there's only one recognized workers' voice: the ACFTU. Other labour unions must be affiliated to it in order to be recognized.

Inside the larger factories 20,000, 30,000, even 70,000 people work

The ACFTU and the CCP are closely intertwined. At the union table in Guangzhou, I'm sitting opposite Chen Weiguang, who chairs the Guangzhou Trade Union Council and is also the convenor of this region's CCP (ACFTU branch). He smiles at any suggestion of conflict, and says the two should work as one. As for the CCP's ties with capital and management: ‘On the surface there is conflict, but these must be resolved.'

Ma Xiao Xin, a manager with Panasonic, is also sitting at the union's table. He outlines his company's ‘particular attention to labour relations'. Whenever there are issues affecting workers, the company approaches the union. He describes a proactive union response – for instance, negotiating a drop in the temperature in a too-hot factory by 4 degrees. So who is the union representative in the factory he manages? He is. When I express surprise, he explains: ‘When we wear the union hat, we have to fight for workers' rights.' International investors would be hard pressed to come up with a more attractive way of doing business with unions.

What should one make of such systems? China's paramount leader during the late 1970s and 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, dubbed the country's new capital-driven economy as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics'. He explained: ‘It does not matter whether the cat is white or black; if it catches mice it is a good cat.' In other words, the primary concern should be the betterment of the people. And if the system that delivers the goal is driven by a free market economy, then that's considered appropriate in a socialist government agenda.

According to the World Bank, China's economic transformation has helped the Communist Party Government to deliver people from starvation. The Bank estimates that over the past 20 years between 300 and 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty.4 In Guangdong province alone the GDP per head in 1978 was less than a dollar a week and well under the international poverty line. By 2000, its 87 million people enjoyed an average annual GDP income of 12,973 yuan (a little more than $30 a week): three times that amount for those who were living in the provincial capital, Guangzhou.

This city – with its row upon row of high-rise buildings reaching to the clouds – looks like any modern capital in the rich world. Its streets throng with an emerging middle class. But like any city, Guangzhou's buildings and streets hide the underclass that capitalism creates to survive: the groups of migrants who will do the menial and dirty work shunned by the locals. They sweat it out in nearby factories and dormitories.

Mark Henley / Panos / www.panos.co.uk
To doll up its economy, the conditions of China's workers are being dressed down, as in this toy factory in Guangdong's special economic zone, Shenzhen. Mark Henley / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

On the factory floor

Overwhelmingly, rural migrants work the factory production lines. In some, 80 per cent are migrants. In others, 90 per cent. Most are young women under 25 years of age: as workers they are cheap and compliant. They come here willingly, most knowing that they will work 10 or 11 hours a day, six days a week. In busy times, some will regularly work all night. Tired and bleary, they are accidents waiting to happen.

I visit a chemical factory, passing by a sign that warns workers that if they use the lift ‘inappropriately' they will be fined (a common way for employers to regulate their employees in these provincial factories). The sign is on the way to the factory floor where male workers with scant protection in stifling heat pack chemicals into bags. I see a toy factory where rows of migrant workers sit at tables, applying glue and paint with fine brushes to tiny resin soldiers. Again, the heat is stifling: the smell from the solvents inescapable. The workers have no protection. When I talk to one of the employers, he explains that there is ventilation ‘and they have a break every 5 hours'. I wonder what the continual whiffs of glue must do to their brains.

These are the better places to work.

On average these workers earn less than 600 yuan ($73) a week; up to 800 ($97) with overtime.5 The system maximizes employer control. During busy times temporary employees – who can be sacked when production falls – make up a large proportion of the workforce (40 per cent is not uncommon). Accommodation is tied to employment, giving employers extended control over the lives of workers outside their factories and minimizing the opportunity for employees to find out about other – more appealing – workplaces.6 The workers live together in dormitories – some attached to the factory, some in nearby towns. In the less restricted ones, there are only six people to a room. All are sex-segregated. Even if the workers were given the choice (and few are), the workers could not afford to live in a house with a partner as a family. Exhausted after long workdays, many have never been to nearby towns. The factories and the dormitories define their lives.

Industrial action appears a remote prospect. Less than 30 per cent of foreign factories in Guangdong have an ACFTU representative. Indeed, it was not until last year that membership of the ACFTU was even open to migrant workers.

In any event, a priority for both the CCP and the ACFTU is courting capital. Their policies for the modernization of China depend on it. To attack the chronic underemployment in the countryside (where 30 million still have inadequate food and clothes) surplus rural labour needs to be sucked into the cities. But to support the rural influx, jobs must be attracted – and lots of them. China's labour laws must be the trade-off. Both the Chinese Government and the ACFTU know that if factory wages and standards are raised, capital investment will go elsewhere – to other parts of China, or worse still, to other countries.

Left to their own devices, with no ability to form their own associations, there'll be no real change for migrant workers – in the short term, at least. But as the Chinese saying goes: Water supports a boat; it can also capsize it. China's rural workforce was 488 million in 2003, with over 300 million of them underemployed. As a consequence, the number of rural workers leaving the countryside to seek work in the cities is increasing exponentially: estimated to grow to 200 million in the next decade. Just as the peasants and farmers provided the vital support needed for the Communists to take power, the migrant workers they have become can take it away.

Resentment and frustration are spilling over. There have been sporadic strikes and walkouts. Reports of vandalism, sabotage and violence by workers are seeping past the factory doors and on to the desks of NGOs. If the legitimate grievances of migrant workers remain unresolvable, they are likely to pose a long-term problem for the stability of the Government.

Occasionally there is an encouraging sign from the CCP. Xiong Deming, a woman in a remote village in Chongqing province, complained to Premier Wen Jiabao last October that her husband, who was working on a nearby construction site, had not been paid for several months. This is a common tale: in the construction industry alone, payments in arrears owing to workers have accumulated to 30 billion yuan ($3.6 billion). After Premier Wen's direct intervention, the money owed to Xiong's family was paid that night. It sparked a Government-led campaign to help migrant workers retrieve the arrears owed to them.7

To an entrepreneur, this must be nirvana. It looks like hell

The ACFTU too is working to improve living standards: running model dormitories and setting up health schemes for the workers.

But these responses dance around the central issue. To pull a few up to riches, the money that is being made through the sweat of the migrant workers pushes many down to appalling pay and conditions.

It is still not too late. The CCP's public embrace of the market economy does not mean that it needs to trash socialist principles completely. It could resist the present economic orthodoxy overseen by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that the state should refrain from any intervention in the market. It could then reach into the factories and dormitories with laws and inspectors to guarantee better, safer working conditions and a more equitable share of income. However, if it accepts the prevailing capitalist view and takes a ‘hands-off' approach, the voices of the migrant workers are likely to remain unheard in the crowded factories and dormitories where they are presently trapped.

  1. Jin Huikang, Aspects of Guangdong, Cartographic Publishing House of Guangdong Province, Guangdong, 2002
  2. J Chan ‘Chinese Communist Party to declare itself open to the capitalist élite.' World Socialist Web Site, http://wsws.org, November 2002
  3. China's 100 Richest 2002, Forbes, http://forbes.com, 24 October 2002. This was a fall from 2000, when 12 of the 50 richest were delegates to the Congress – see R Hoogewert ‘China's 50 Richest Entrepreneurs' Forbes, http://forbes.com, 27 November 2000
  4. World Bank President, James Wolfensohn, speech to a Poverty Reduction Conference in Shanghai on 26 May 2004
  5. Research conducted by Kai Ming Liu, Executive Director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, Shenzhen
  6. Pun Ngai ‘The Precarious Employment and Hidden Costs of Women Workers in Shenzhen'. The Chinese Working Women Network, September 2003
  7. China Daily, 19 January 2004.

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