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Time to defend Chinese workers' rights

09:15, June 07, 2010

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By Li Hong

Wherever exists exploitation and suppression, rebellion erupts. If the exploited are a majority of the society, the revolt draws even nearer and comes with a louder bout.

For the past 30 years witnessing China's meteoric rise, multinationals and upstart home tycoons have rammed up their wealth making use of China's favorable economic policies as well as oversight loopholes. In sharp contrast, tens of millions of Chinese blue-collar workers who have genuinely generated the wealth and created the prosperity have been left far behind.

According to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a quarter of Chinese workers have not had a raise in pay in the past five years. The figure is perilously worrisome. Their harsh working conditions, low living standards and hardships in supporting older and younger family members add up, exacerbating psychological pressure.

The long queues of luxury cars running in China's cities shine our eyes, verifying modernization of a huge country, but none of the flotilla belongs to the above "quarter of Chinese workers" whose salaries are at a standstill. It is logical to claim their livelihood is actually on decline taking in account the price rises in the years.

Hence, there came the widely-reported mass labor strike at Japan's Honda's joint venture production line in Guangdong Province to demand for a higher pay, and the spate of rising employee suicides crippling Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group's mainland plant in Shenzhen City.

Reports say that the Honda workers' walk-out since May 27 has forced four Honda automobile assembly lines in China to shut doors because of shortage of key engine parts, inflicting huge losses on the firm. Honda finally agreed to a 24 percent pay rise to the workers who returned to work last week. Also, Foxconn management has agreed to workers' uniform pay rise of 30 percent.

The pay rises are long overdue. They should have come prior to workers' took radical measures.

Never expect something like labor strike to happen in China? Please bear in mind that workers on this globe belong to the same group. When the exploited laborers are forced to toil extra time, work under huge pressure and earn disproportional tiny wages -- often at less than 1,500 yuan (US$220) a month in China, the disappointment and frustration gather and grow to anger, and eventually revolts break out.

For sure, the Honda and Foxcoon workers will boost and embolden other low-wage workers to move and defend for their legitimate labor and human rights. The allegation by some that the Honda strike has highlighted tensions between Chinese workers and foreign companies is simply not true, because it's totally unfair and unruly for businesses to seek exorbitant profits at the cost of their employees.

Now, some analysts have argued that workers' rising demand for higher salary would deprive China as a source of cheap labor and drive multinationals to move to other countries like India and Vietnam. But, isn't time for this country to say no to low-value and labor-intensive manufacturing, and make a small climb on the industrial ladder?

Isn't business's overexploitation of employees disgraceful? Isn't Chinese workers' demand for a higher pay justified? (As a matter of fact, Japanese employees in that Honda plant are paid 50 times more than the average Chinese workers).

The government has a role to play. For many years, it has been, unethically, friendly in policy-making towards businesses in order to ratchet up economic growth, but done little to solidify the interests of the workers. As a result, as the country has raked in stacks of foreign currencies as reserves, and businesses and tycoons had deep pockets, the welfare of vast laborers has been hardly improved.

The sustainability of the country's growth is now at stake. Only when the low-paid, long-neglected and voiceless are taken care of by the government, the blue-collar workers' unrest, now brewing in some factories, won't cascade, spread and form crushing waves.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hong has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.


Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."

Li HongmeiLi Hongmei

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.