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.
In 2008, this temporary residency card system was changed to a permanent residency card system. However, it continues to be plagued by problems. For example, a person has to have been in Shenzhen for 10 years before they can apply for residency. Another problem is evident from Shanghai’s adoption of a skilled labor migration policy, similar to those developed nations use to attract skilled workers from developing countries. This means that those who want to gain residency in Shanghai must possess certain skills. However, there are probably only about 3,000 people out of the more than 5 million who live in Shanghai without household registrations who could actually gain residency there based on this regulation.
Surprisingly, it is harder for Chinese peasants to become citizens of Shanghai than it is for them to gain a US green card or a household registration here in Taiwan, while those who hold residency cards have far fewer rights than those who hold US green cards.
The overly strict rules placed on peasant workers by China’s household registration system have deprived them of their basic human rights and given rise to all sorts of unusual situations.
Shenzhen originally had a population of only 310,000 people, however during the 1980s, the population increased by 300,000 to 400,000 annually, followed by slower growth rates of 70,000 to 80,000 per year during the 1990s. It now has a population of more than 14 million. However, only 2 million people have legal household registrations. Out of a “floating population” of 10 million people in Shenzhen, more than 7 million possess temporary residency cards, over 1 million live in factory dormitories and more than 2 million are part of a “gray population” and have no proper jobs.
Pan has said that cities exploit the labor of this “floating population” only to send them back to the countryside when the projects they work on are completed. What is worse is that 90 percent of China’s new generation of peasant workers, about 100 million in total, have lost the skills necessary to perform farm work and their incomes are nowhere near enough to enable them to settle in cities like Shenzhen.
When these workers lose both the skills necessary for farming and their jobs in the cities, they become social outcasts and it is absolutely no surprise that some resort to suicide.
The polarized economic structure that exists between rural and urban areas has created the legend that Shenzhen has become. It has also given rise to the “China model” that some academics from Taiwan and around the world fall over themselves to praise. Such people think it is trendy to discuss how the Beijing Consensus will replace the Washington Consensus as a model for economic development.
One cannot help but wonder whether these academics feel any sympathy for the 200 million peasant workers in China who are suffering a plight unknown in industrial history. On a similar note, perhaps those people criticizing Foxconn should spend more time looking at the true nature of the Chinese model of economic development.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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