While China’s gross domestic product (GDP) keeps growing at a breath-taking pace, 11.5% this year, employment issues – including the subject of workers rights – continue to receive a lot of attention.


China has so far signed “The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and 24 international labor conventions. At the same time, the country’s domestic legislation claims to protect workers’ basic rights with the New Labor Contract Law, which will become effective on January 1, 2008. However, some experts suggest that the law, as written, is not very clear, raising the question: To what extent is China securing the rights of its workers?


“There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed,” said Yean Zhou, a professor of the People’s University in Beijing who recently published a research paper titled, “Evaluating the Labor Rights in a Transforming China” with coauthors from the China Youth Political College. In their research, the authors offer some insights into the topic and some ideas on how to improve the rights of workers.


Some Basics

Labor rights, the authors note, are seen by China’s intellectuals as a basic human right. The narrow meaning of labor rights includes freedom to work and the guarantee of a job. The more generalized meaning includes everything that is protected by labor legislation and contracts, such as the right to work, to rest, to get paid, to form voluntary associations, to get career training, and so on. According to the International Labor Convention, labor rights include protocols in four areas — free association (Protocol 87 and 98), discrimination (protocol 100 and 111), compulsory work (protocol 29 and 105) and child labor (protocol 138 and 182). In a word, labor rights provide equality and the freedom to find a decent job.


Although it is quite controversial from the human rights angle, most scholars agree that it is important – and possible – to measure human rights. Earlier research noted that there are three components used to measure human rights: legislation, practice and government effectiveness. Chinese scholars have done empirical research on the topic and have found evidence that income discrimination and gender discrimination exist.


China’s demographic management system creates a special population group, the rural migrant workers (“nongmingong”), whose labor rights are the most vulnerable to abuse. A research project conducted by the State Council in 2006 shows that there is discrimination against rural migrant workers. “Besides discrimination, child labor is another important issue in China’s job markets,” Zhou noted. Another researcher, who studied related news stories in the media, finds that child labor is the practice in more than 10 provinces, including both rich and poor areas. “However, the research on labor rights protection of China is, in general,” inadequate, Zhou stated.


Zhou and his colleagues, therefore, have conducted a survey to get information about job market discrimination and child labor.


What the Data Says

“Following Rawls’ Rule – that a society’s welfare is valued based on the [experience of the least well-off person] – we focused on society’s grassroots,” Zhou said. The survey was conducted from December 2005 to March 2006.


The sample includes both rural migrant workers and urban workers, with a sample size of 1,117. The sample covers a number of provinces and cities, including Guangdong, Hunan, Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian, Hubei, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Tianjin. In the sample, 98.2% are employed, of which 63.8% are rural migrant workers and 33.3% are urban workers. In addition, 53% of the sample is male and 47% female. Most of the people in the sample are 18 years old to 45 years old, and 41.3% of the sample is between 18 and 25. The sample concentrates on people with a junior middle school education (56.6%) and high school education (26.2%). As for income level, 58.6% of the sample earns 1,001-2,000 yuan (US$133-$267) per month, and 28.1% earns less than 1,000 yuan (US$133) per month.


When asked, “Have you ever been treated unfairly on the job market?” 79% of the sampled workers answered ‘no’ and 21% answered ‘yes’. As expected, 32% of the unfairness is a factor of rural identity. Another 24% of the unfairness occurs because the worker is not a local resident. When asked “Where do you think the unfairness in job markets comes from?” 72% said it’s because “the local company prefers local residents.”


Among female respondents, about 17% said that “women have less opportunity to get a job,” “women have less opportunity to get a promotion” or “women get paid less for the same job.” In addition, 45% of women chose the answer that “women need to work harder to get a good job.” However, discrimination against women may not be as strong as many scholars thought: When asked “Which group do you think would most likely be treated unfairly?” 47% chose “rural migrant workers,” and 45% chose “persons with a low education level.” Only 3% chose “women.”


Another issue is the prohibition of child labor. According to the ILO, child labor is defined as children under 14 who are suitable for work; and children 14 to 18 years who are suitable for work but not for high-risk work. To measure child labor is difficult even with ILO’s definition. A researcher introduced an indirect measurement using the enrollment rate of the children. But that ignores the possibility of working during vacation, which could cause severe under-estimation. Some researchers have pointed out that all existing data on child labor has serious limitations.


Zhou chose to look at direct observations of child labor by the respondents as a way to measure the extent of child labor rights violations. The respondents are all workers in similar environments that use child labor. The scholars asked directly: “Do you know if there any companies in the neighborhood that hire workers under 18?” In response, 28% said ‘yes.’ Since this is not a small number, researchers asked: “Who is hiring child workers?” According to the survey, 62% respondents answered that private business hires the most; 33% of the respondents said it was small enterprises.


Still a Long Way Ahead

Through the survey, Zhou and his colleagues found that China’s institutions – those which are supposed to protect the rights of workers – are, in fact, doing a poor job. First, although the government has been putting significant effort into promoting an acceptable labor contracting environment, “there is still a lot of work for the government to do,” Zhou said. For example, 39.8% of the respondents do not sign any labor contract. When asked why not, 38.7% answered that “the company does not permit it.” Another 52.4% of the respondents said that “Nobody cares.” 


Second, the workers don’t trust the institutional organizations, “such as courts, labor unions and governmental labor protection departments,” said Zhou. When asked, “What would you do if you were involved in a labor dispute?” 71% of respondents said they would choose to talk about it with the boss, 19% said they would report to the local government, and less than 1% said they would use the courts. When asked to evaluate the effects of various ways of resolving labor disputes, 65% of respondents think talking with the boss is the most effective way, 23% chose labor arbitration, 7% chose to report to the news media, and only 1% chose the courts.


Going to court appears to be too costly for workers. According to a survey done in 2005, in order to pass through all the steps needed to claim a wage of 1,000 yuan, a rural migrant worker has to spend at least 920 yuan and at least 11-21 days, the lost earnings from which equal 550-1,050 yuan. This does not include hotel and transportation fees. According to an investigation of 17 cases, each case cost more than 10,000 yuan (US$1333) to conduct.


In that survey, nobody chose the labor union as a way to solve labor disputes with the company. “The key is that the union is not independent. In China, a company union not only reports to the upper level of the union — such as the city union, provincial union or even national union — but also is under the administration of the local party committee. And often the party and the companies share similar interests or goals, such as economic growth. So unions can seldom play a positive and effective role in labor disputes,” Zhou noted.


Suggestions Offered

To improve the protection of labor rights in China, Zhou suggested rebuilding public regulation of the labor market. Society needs to strengthen the power of the labor monitoring department, build up independent unions for rural migrant workers, reduce the burdensome labor arbitration process and establish efficient labor courts. However, “all these are not easy” to do, said Zhou.

So how does one reform the institutions that are supposed to protect labor rights, given that the current legal system is not doing the job? “One way is to encourage non-governmental organizations, such as unions and women’s federations,” Zhou said. “The ultimate solution is to entrust to workers the right of free association and to increase workers’ bargaining power when they face the companies.”