October 20, 2006

China, Labor, Again

Okay, let's look at the Chinese government's plan to revamp labor rights a little more closely. A recent policy paper from Global Labor Strategies describes the legislation, noting that "it will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions with leaders of their own choosing and the right to strike." The new laws will, however, provide contracts for the millions of Chinese workers who lack them, set up structures for negotiations over workplace policies and procedures, allow workers to change jobs more easily (something that's currently extremely difficult), and create a path for temporary workers to become permanent employees.

One can ask to what extent these policies will be enforced, but on the face, they represent real advances. No wonder, as GLS ably documents, corporations in China are fighting them tooth and nail. Angelica Oung notes, quite shrewdly, that the Chinese Communist Party's interests don't quite line up with those of global capital. The CCP worries about stability. These changes provide that stability, to some extent. As Matt noted on in comments, some of the new rules will attempt to limit unemployment—since the last thing China needs is millions of frustrated unemployed workers.

The twist is that multinational corporations may actually have an interest in working with the CCP on this issue. State-backed unions in China, after all, exist to solve labor disputes without striking or other unpleasantries. According to the New York Times, some specialists suggest that an improved network of official union branches [will] assist the authorities in defusing protests that could potentially pose a threat to Communist Party rule." Unions can keep tabs on workers pretty well—and limit what they do. Certainly the relatively conservative unions in the United States have helped defuse a good deal of labor militancy over the years. It was bad for the left, but good for business.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently had a great article on the plight of workers in China. Han Dongfang, a union advocate with the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, suggested that there will likely be "no enforcement" of the new rules. Another activist said, "No one knows where a union ends and a political party begins." Perhaps most fascinatingly, the article noted that the most impressive worker gains have come not through state-backed union activity, but through labor rights cases in the courts. To some extent, China has had to reform its legal system to attract foreign investment. It appears that workers are increasingly using that to their advantage—maybe it's the only one they have.
-- Brad Plumer 5:11 PM || ||