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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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