Sat, Feb 05, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Poor working conditions plague Guangdong

China's capitalist miracle was made possible by cheap labor. But now the workers have started standing up for their rights

AP , Dongguan, China

ILLUSTRATION: YUSHA

Labor disputes in southern China's booming Guangdong Province are becoming increasingly prominent as an unprecedented army of 30 million migrant workers clamors for better conditions and treatment.

This astonishing influx of cheap labor has been the engine of China's capitalist miracle, officials say, making Guangdong the nation's most prosperous region.

It has also turned the Pearl River Delta into an export-oriented manufacturing hub, from Hong Kong in the east to Foshan in the west.

But as the government tries to maintain the image of an investor's paradise based on low production costs, the workers, increasingly backed by state media, labor rights groups and even the courts, are clamoring for an end to slave-like working conditions.

"There are several causes of worker disputes, but the leading reason is when enterprises don't pay salaries," said Wang Guanyu, director of the Guangdong Labor and Employment Service and Administrative Center. "The workers are very aware of their need to protect themselves so if there are violations, they will complain directly about it."

Another cause is the sweatshop conditions at many factories, including low pay, seven-day work weeks, 15-hour working days, mandatory overtime, a poor working environment and often coercive factory regulations.

Recent riots at the Taiwanese-invested Stella International shoe factory in Dongguan and a spate of other smaller workers' strikes and walkouts in the region reflect the growing sense of labor strife.

"There is not a factory in Dongguan that abides by the Labor Law. I would say 50 to 60 percent of the factories here make you work seven days a week," said a worker surnamed Wu who toils at the city's Henghui packaging factory.

The Labor Law mandates a 40-hour, five-day work week and a range of worker benefits.

Rush of Migrants

Wang said the government's hands were too full trying to administer the migrant rush into Guangdong -- with numbers jumping from 5 million registered workers in 1995 to 10 million in 2001 and nearly 20 million last year -- to concentrate solely on labor issues.

Only registered workers who have had jobs for at least six months are included in the figures, with another 10 million unregistered workers also estimated to have met the six-month working criteria.

A further 10 million could be looking for work, Wang said.

This gives Guangdong by far the largest share of China's officially estimated 140 million migrant workers. Another around 6 million are in Shanghai and 5 million in Beijing.

Most of the workers in Guangdong are under 35, more than half are women and they largely come from impoverished inland provinces like Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Guangxi and Guizhou.

Many are engaged in light industrial manufacturing, including electronics, as well as cheap Chinese textiles like plastics, shoes, clothes, toys and furniture that are mainstays in markets worldwide.

`Market Forces'

The government's priority is creating more jobs by attracting investment and building more factories, and the implementation of legally mandated labor rights and benefits should be brought about with "market forces," Wang said.

"Generally speaking, we want to raise the quality and effectiveness of our labor force and this will mean higher wages and better benefits, but this is a process that will take time," Wang said.

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