Sat, Jul 03, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Brutal labor exploitation in China

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水

If Hon Hai’s operations in China are sweatshops, then China itself, the “factory of the world,” is a far bigger sweatshop than Hon Hai will ever be.

Undercover reporters from the Southern Metropolis Daily, a reformist Chinese newspaper, spent 28 days at a Foxconn plant.The final sentence of the resulting article claimed that their story did not represent the inner goings-on of one factory but, rather, the fate of a whole generation of Chinese workers.

Most of the Foxconn workers are peasants. They are a unique generation of workers in that they embody certain “Chinese characteristics” and are unlike any other laborers seen in the history of industrialization.

In the 1950s, China adopted a household registration system that designated people either urban or rural dwellers. This system saw the emergence of a polarized structure that continues to exist between rural and urban areas and economies in China. The household registration system was strictly enforced and the movement of people regulated for many years. However, after China opened up and implemented reforms, hundreds of millions of peasants moved to the cities to look for work.

These peasant workers have a dual identity. Their household registration is invariably in a rural area, but they are also laborers, unable to gain residency in the places where they work, despite in some cases having worked there for a decade or more. In terms of employment, social welfare, medical insurance and the education of their children, these people face systematic discrimination and are in effect second-class citizens. What’s more, the Chinese Communist Party enforces strict controls on the formation of labor unions and so peasant workers are subject to extreme exploitation by capitalists.

The recent suicides at Taiwanese-owned Foxconn have received unprecedented media coverage, with many claiming that Foxconn is an example of the worst type of exploitation.

In this context, comments made by Beijing-based academic Shu Kexin (舒可心) are of particular note. Shu has talked at length about issues, such as Chinese-owned sweatshops, child labor and working conditions not even fit for animals.

Another Beijing academic, Chen Yongmiao (陳永苗), has said that the primitive accumulation of capital under the Chinese socialist system has brought much more pain to laborers than a capitalist system ever could.

Hong Kong-based academic Pan Yi (潘毅) has said that the current conditions faced by peasant workers are even worse than those workers endured in the 19th century when Karl Marx formulated his ideas on labor and exploitation.

Pan has said that since 2000, strikes have become almost commonplace in the factories that belong to businesses in the Pearl River Delta and that thousands upon thousands of workers have taken part in these strikes. He also observed that the media never covers such labor unrest because strikes are simply too common.

Despite this, the Hon Hai suicides were widely reported in the media and gave rise to all kinds of pulp journalism. Rather than indulge in such unseemly speculation, let’s look at the real issues facing China’s peasant workers.

With the plight of peasant workers so bleak, the first question is whether they should be allowed to gain residency in the large cities to which they flock for work?

This was asked back in 1993, but was put on hold by the Chinese government in 1994. There was more talk about changing the system in 2008. Peasant workers were originally not able to stay in cities for long periods of time and were therefore only ever able to gain temporary residency cards.

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