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.

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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

But just as the number of injured workers is rising, so is their awareness of their rights. Xiang, Zhong, and 30 fellow Zhangjiajie villagers headed to the Shenzhen Hospital for the Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases, the only place where they could get an official diagnosis to qualify for compensation. But because they lacked a valid work contract – their employers had never offered one – the hospital turned them away.

After his request for an examination was denied, says Zhong, “I set off on the path to petition and fight for my fights.” In March, he and Xiang rallied two dozen fellow villagers for a sit-in and hunger strike on the lawn outside Shenzhen city hall. After just a few hours, officials came out and offered to hold talks.

At their meeting, the officials agreed to let the workers be examined. Some 40 percent who had worked the drill were positively diagnosed. Zhong was found to need special treatment. Two months later, in late May, the workers were each offered 70,000 and 130,000 yuan ($10,000 and $19,000), depending on the severity of their diagnoses.

The men were pleased, though concerned, as they have yet to see the money. Many hope to bring it home to start their own businesses.

In a similar case last August, about 90 drill workers from Leiyang, also in Hunan Province, each received “humanitarian aid” of up to 130,000 yuan ($19,000) from the city after staging a three-month protest.

How much give?

While happy endings like this have not become the norm in China, workers’ rights have gained traction in recent years and been promoted at high levels of government. In his recent report to the National People's Congress, the vice-minister of human resources and social security, Yang Zhiming, emphasized the need to safeguard migrant workers' rights and improve their working conditions. Beijing implemented a labor law in 2008, and officials in Guangdong have been raising the minimum wage. In the long term, China aims to upgrade its manufacturing to higher-end goods, in part by squeezing low-margin factories that rely on low wages.

“Over the past three, four years, officials in Guangdong have grown tolerant of such protests and tend to resort to more civilized, conciliatory measures because more and more people – from the central government to the media – have become concerned about the plight of these migrant workers,” says Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a nongovernmental organization in Shenzhen.

“At the same time, workers have been more aware of their rights and new laws have made it easier for them to fight for their dues,” he says.

Yet Mr. Liu remains cautious. “The government wants to keep the peace,” he says, “and still prizes harmony above all else.”

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