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Global Viewpoint

Amid Honda and Foxconn tragedies in China, a new era of worker activism

City governments across China need to repay the debt owed to the migrant workers who have generated their tax revenues for so long, says prominent workers’ rights advocate Han Dongfang.

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Such a union at Foxconn would not only be able to negotiate a decent basic wage that makes excessive overtime unnecessary, it could also foster a sense of community that would help protect the rights and dignity of all employees.

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At Honda’s supplier factories, a properly functioning trade union would have been able to present workers’ demands for higher pay to management during scheduled, peaceful, and equal negotiations, and thereby forestall strike action that not only closed a components plant but shut down the company’s entire China operation. Even the Communist Party boss of Guangdong now thinks proper trade unions are essential if workers’ rights are to be protected. In a telephone conference to discuss the recent strikes in the province last week, Wang Yang stated that unions should stand up for workers in their struggle.

But it is not just the trade union that has to make changes.

After three decades of neglect, local governments have a crucial and long overdue adjustment to make. For decades now, city governments have been collecting billions of yuan in taxes from companies that employ workers from outside the city limits. And yet, these migrant workers have received nothing in return from these local governments. They are excluded from housing, health care, and social services, and their children are excluded from local schools. And, until very recently, they could not even cash in their employer’s social security contributions when they left the city to move back home.

Some urban governments have made grudging concessions to migrant workers, but most will only open their schools and hospitals to those with relatively well-paid and steady jobs. Those migrants who really need help are still systematically excluded. The time has come for city governments across China to repay the debt owed to the migrant workers who have generated their tax revenues for so long.

Local governments should build low-cost housing for workers, and migrants should be given the same rights to local social services as urban residents – no questions asked.

If migrants have access to affordable housing and no longer have to pay excessive charges for education, health care, and social services, then some of the intense burden created by low pay would be lifted and these young men and women who have been discriminated against their entire lives will finally begin to experience a sense of community and acceptance.

The final goal should be the eradication of the term “migrant worker” entirely. Workers are workers, no matter where they come from, and they should all be treated with dignity and respect, and at the very least get decent pay for decent work.

Han Dongfang has been an advocate for workers’ rights in China for two decades. He first came to international prominence when, as a railway worker in Beijing, he helped set up the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In 1994, he established China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization that seeks to uphold and defend the rights of workers across China.

© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network/ Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.