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Thu, Aug 23, 2001 - Page 24 News List

Official unions in China impair workers' interests

LABOR CONDITIONS Workers in Dongguan frequently work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for a pittance. They also lack the voice to help improve their lives


Women employed at factories in Dongguan, China out on their day off. With the collapse of the state industries that once dominated China, tens of millions of workers who were long portrayed as official masters of the Communist nation have been virtually cast aside. Now, tens of millions have flocked from rural areas to China's coast for such work.


The two young women were strolling through a sterile factory zone in China's roaring southeast, enjoying a rare day off. "Trade union?" they repeated, puzzled, when asked about workers' rights. "What's that?"

Migrants from the same distant village, the women typified the tens of millions who have flocked to China's coast to work in factories that are mainly foreign-owned, producing electronic goods, clothing, toys and other products for export.

And like many of their fellow migrants, they are willing to work 12 hours a day or more for a pittance, living 12 to a room and putting aside any questions about legal rights.

One of the pair, Ms. Fu, said that in her toy-packing job she cleared US$24 to US$36 a month, "depending on overtime." With orders recently down, she said, she has been working only 10 hours a day and has started getting some Sundays off.

Fu, who declined to give her full name, said she was not aware that her wages and hours violated local labor regulations. National law sets a basic work week of up to 44 hours with at least one day off, and the local minimum wage is US$48 a month, plus higher rates for overtime.

"But we couldn't do anything about it anyway," she added with a shrug.

Inequality growing

With the collapse of the state industries that once dominated China, tens of millions of the workers who were long portrayed as official masters of the Communist nation have been virtually cast aside.Their official Communist-run trade union federation has often been little more than a bystander as the old companies are dissolved or sold.

As private and foreign companies race ahead in newer industrial centers like this one in the southeastern province of Guangdong, a new kind of working class is emerging, one dominated by rural migrants who have no tradition of unions or the security once enjoyed in state enterprises.

A large majority of the new companies have ignored the requirement to unionize or have created puppet bodies, according to Chinese and foreign labor experts

"The working class of China has been marginalized," said He Qinglian, a social critic and author of The Pitfall of China's Development. For the Chinese leaders, who are trying to engineer the transition to a market economy, both the old and new arenas of labor have been sources of social instability. Already thousands of worker protests, wildcat strikes and other disputes are reported each year over everything from unpaid pensions to corruption to intolerable hazards.

Through rapid economic development, the government is hoping to grow out of the problem as the benefits of a restructured economy gradually spread. In the meantime President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) has taken the step of trying to broaden the party's base by allowing in capitalists, which some Marxists say will only further diminish the officially hallowed status of workers.

For now, inequality is growing fast, and in the years ahead, as China further opens its markets under WTO rules, labor strife -- and questions from abroad about fair labor practices -- are likely to increase.

Rights violations

The trade union federation includes many officials who yearn to speak more forcefully for underdog workers. But a blizzard of examples, many from the federation's own newspaper, shows that unions are hamstrung by tight political control and by their mandate simply to help workers adjust to change.

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