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China's migrant workers see some gains on labor rights

In China, dozens of migrant workers who protested to city officials over a job-related illness won compensation. Labor-rights success stories, while rare, are growing more frequent.

By Violet LawContributor / June 30, 2010

Foxconn workers take part in a group exercise at a business district near their factory in the township of Longhua, Guangdong province Tuesday. Foxconn, a key supplier to brands such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson, has been struggling with a wave of labour unrest in China, where increasingly assertive migrant workers are calling for better conditions and higher pay.

Joe Tan/Reuters


Shenzhen, China

Chinese migrant laborers toiling in the factories of two major firms won unusually hefty raises in recent weeks, as Honda sought to end strikes and Foxconn, maker of the Apple iPad, tried to stave off criticism over a spate of worker suicides.

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But multinationals that find themselves backed into a corner are not the only ones starting to heed the demands of increasingly emboldened employees. In some instances government officials here in China’s southern factory belt, Guangdong Province, have also made small concessions as more workers stage sit-ins and pursue legal channels for compensation.

In one such success story, in the past year two sets of construction workers who found themselves diagnosed with pneumoconiosis – that is, their lungs clogged with abnormal levels of mineral deposits – demanded and won up to $19,000 each from city officials.

It’s unclear how far China’s local or central government will allow such long-suppressed labor protests to bud. While Beijing has outlined goals to eliminate cheap labor and the low-end manufacturers that rely on them, it also fiercely prizes social stability.

“Government officials have been taking a carrot-and-stick approach,” says Geoff Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. “While they're willing to make concessions, they are just as willing to use force to break up any demonstration if those concessions are not accepted.

Hazards at work

Until last summer, Xiang Jie and Zhong Jiaquan, migrant workers from Zhangjiajie, central Hunan Province, had toiled in the building frenzy of Shenzhen, southern China’s first boom town. For more than a decade, they labored alongside an army of workers operating pneumatic drills, burrowing deep underground to blast the granite bedrock of many a building site.

But last July, they had trouble climbing the steps to their fifth-floor apartment. So they visited a hospital, where doctors gave them his diagnosis.

Pneumoconiosis now accounts for 8 in 10 new cases of occupational disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a government body. In 2008, the official count of workers diagnosed with it or some other job-related disease neared 650,000, though some academics and labor advocates say the figure is likely closer to one million.

“Our supervisors would tell us to put on the hard hat, face mask, and all,” Zhong recalls. “They took care of only the hazards they could see but overlooked those that the job could pose to our bodies inside.”

Protest at city hall