Born in Hong Kong, Dr. Anita Chan has been researching working conditions in China for 25 years and is currently at the Australian National University's Contemporary China Center. Here, she discusses what she has learned in her visits to factories in China. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 10, 2005 .
- Workers' production pressures
- When workers complain about their situation
- The prevalence of workplace injuries
- Some of the most abusive practices
Based on your investigations and work, what are the most serious problems facing the ordinary worker in China?
The two major problems that I see for workers in China is one, not being paid for having worked, and the second one is the very, very long working hours, very, very long overtime.
What is a typical working week in some factories?
Well, according to the labor law, it is a 40-hour week, and then a lot of the Western companies have this thing about 60-hour week maximum. But with a 60-hour week maximum, if you have one day off, a six-day week is 10 hours [a day], which is quite long on a production line. At least there is one day off, but actually a lot of factories that produce for export do not even have one day off. That means seven days a week, 13 hours a day. It's not uncommon. …
I just saw a group of workers in a toy factory a few days ago, a few nights ago. It was at 9:00 I was there. They said that last month, two times they had to work overnight. That means they didn't sleep two times last month. That's a lot of hours plus no days off.
Why are they being put under this pressure?
Because of the very short turnover rate. The delivery time that's given to factories now is becoming shorter and shorter by the companies that buy their products. …
Are we talking foreign companies now?
Yeah. Workers in these supplier factories are experiencing this because the foreign companies are giving them very short time, and then [there] are very irregular placement of orders, so sometimes workers have to work very long hours like in this case, without going to sleep. Then suddenly, maybe for one or two weeks, they don't have any work. So there are things like that. … The factories have to adjust to the orders. …
[T]he supply factories are the front line of production, so the managers in these factories and the workers are pressured to get things done. Otherwise, the factory will be penalized if they don't deliver on time, because the cost has been driven so low that -- actually, it is this boss in this factory that I have been talking about, this toy factory. He said, "Well, if they press me too hard, I'll just give up." Whether he will give up or not, I don't know, but he said: "I'll just close the factory. Why do I have to do that, making nothing?" …
Do you have any idea what they were earning?
One of the workers that I talked to did a survey of the wages of the workers in his shop floor for the last month, and it varies a great deal. Some made very little, and some can make quite a lot. The minimum wage there is about 500 yuan [$60]. I've seen a figure of up to 900 yuan [$110], but then there are figures of about 300 yuan [$40], so it varies. …
If it is really bad, especially when they are not paid, … they may go the local labor bureau to complain or to the local union.
And what happens?
In such cases, where obviously there's something wrong with management, the government will come in and make them pay the workers. There are a lot of cases like that, with government intervention. They just get paid, but then there is also a penalty [they are supposed to pay], but whether they are [actually] going to get a penalty, I don't know.
How long do people last under these conditions, working 24-hour shifts?
Yes, they do, I think. I think that is why they like young, young people, … because they are more energetic; they are fresh; they can work faster. By young we are talking about 18-year-olds who are still strong. That is why, when they recruit workers, they look at their health. It is very important to make sure that they are strong and fit; you don't want to hire sickly workers. Then they work them like this for maybe five, six or seven years, and then either they get sick, they get tired, and they leave on their own, or the factory management will fire them if they are not up to the speed, so they get injured.
Indeed, women by the age of 20 or 25, they really want to go back to get married, and very often they do have to go back to the countryside to get married, and so you have a big turnover of young workers. But somehow the system is also beginning to change after 20-some years. They are now in Guangdong province, older migrant workers who are in their 30s. They may go back home to get married, and then they come out again with their husband. There are cases where husband and wife come out; they may work in the same factory or in separate factories. But if they do have children, very often the children have to be taken care of by their grandparents in the village. It's too expensive to bring the children, and they don't have the right to anyway.
[And what about the large [Western] retailers who purchase the factory's products? Have they taken any responsibility to monitor workers' conditions?]
Since the mid-1990s, these corporations have assumed the responsibility, or at least verbally they said, "OK, yes, we should be responsible," and that is why they started drawing up all these code[s] of conduct that they impose on their supply factories to comply to. So the code of conduct will say no child labor, regular work hours, you do not violate the local labor law, etc., etc. These codes of conduct are supposed to be put up inside the factories for all workers to see, so in that sense they have assumed responsibility. But then they don't care; that's the extent that they will assume responsibility.
So they put up a notice, but there's no one to enforce or monitor it?
Not really. They also have a lot of monitoring, The companies may hire -- big ones in particular -- they all do hire monitors to monitor the social conditions of the factories and also auditing of the accounts to make sure the payments [are] correct, the wages are correct, the overtime is not excessive, there's no excessive occupational health problems. So they do pay money to send people in.
But then a whole system of false bookkeeping has developed, so you monitor what you monitor, and although you know very well [what's really happening], you just don't care, because these monitoring firms also just want the business. The companies want to show the world that they're doing their job, [but] they don't want the monitoring companies to really do a good job. They don't want the real situation exposed. …
Generally, do you feel that Chinese employers worry about worker safety? And if you do feel that, what evidence do you have?
If they do care, there wouldn't be so many injuries, right? My experience with this was when I went to Shenzhen, I went to an ordinary hospital, and there were two floors only for injured workers. I was [brought] there by NGO [non-governmental organization] staff. They go there to help the workers to seek compensation. As we walked in, these injured workers, some of them could walk. If your hands [were] injured, you could still walk. They've been in there for maybe two or three weeks, so they are OK. Some are in bed; they couldn't do anything. Those who could would come to these NGO staff members to inquire about the case, to ask them to help out. The new ones who just arrived heard about this, that there are people who have come to help them, so they crowded around these NGO staff persons to make inquiries about how they can seek compensation.
Compensation has become very important to them, because now they have lost a finger or a hand, so how are they going to work? First of all, they have hospital fees to pay, and it varies. If their employer has bought insurance, then it is better, especially if the insurance is adequate. If they paid enough premium, then they may be OK, but then how about the wages? They are not working, so they are not paid.
It varies from one person to another, but one thing that really struck me was that they were -- some of them, those who had been there for two or three weeks and are recovering, they were not as sad as I thought they would be. I find that incredible. There is a kind of understanding among these injured workers, because they were all in the same boat. They were even joking a little among themselves, and you can see friendship developing among them, helping each other out.
Delayed payment is very serious, because China has a very different kind of system. It's called a household registration system [hukou], where migrant workers who come into the cities have to get temporary work permits and bring their documentation with them wherever they go. In the '80s and the '90s, if you were caught without these documents, you would be arrested, put in detention and sent back. Because of that, workers are really bonded in the factory if the bosses are unconscionable. [The bosses] take away your documentation so you cannot go anywhere and so they can mistreat you in whichever way they like. They can pay you or pay you very little or delay paying you.
There are factories which just automatically do not pay you every month what you are entitled to. If you have worked hard enough to make 600 yuan, they only pay 300 yuan, and then … after half a year, you would be owed 1,800 yuan, and so this is delayed payment. But then delayed can turn into nonpayment if they default on you. If they close the factory, there's nothing you can [do]. They run away, and then you are not paid. …
Are these practices widespread?
It's quite widespread, especially in the late '80s and '90s. Maybe it's a bit better [now], but there are still ways of not paying workers, and that has become very serious in the construction sector, involving mostly men.
Gang bosses bring in a group of peasants, 20 to 30 or whatever, and they go to a site, and they work and work, and they're not paid at all. They are given food, because you need to eat before you can work -- it's hard labor -- but they are not paid. The arrangement is that you will be paid at the end of the year. That means you can work for many months without being paid, and if at the end of the year either the boss or the construction company or the gang bosses default on you, that means you are not paid.
That is so common in the construction sector that it became a big issue two years ago, because construction workers, just before Chinese New Year -- that's when this became an extreme situation, because before Chinese New Year, workers want to go back to the village, and that's when they are supposed to clear up the debts; the whole of China [are] supposed to clear up debts. And that's when they know they are not paid.
There have been cases of construction workers trying to commit suicide, trying to draw attention by going up to some construction sites and threatening to throw themselves down. So the press came to cover it, and it became a big issue, and then the government started looking into it.
A lot of these construction workers actually are working for the state sector, building roads, government buildings. It's because of the government that the state sector also has a lot of debts, a lot of enterprises of debts, what we call the triangular debt situation, and in the end, it's the workers who are the bottom of the heap, and so they are not paid.
The government tried to do something every year in the past three years to resolve the problem. … [They] said that OK, construction workers have to be paid; … we have to gradually pay them back for the last two or three years of wages. Whether this is working or not -- I don't know when the government stepped in -- but one indication that it's really not working very well is last year just before Chinese New Year -- this is when it all happens -- there was a local government announcement that said, "If a construction worker threatens to commit suicide, he's not going to have help from the city government to chase back his wages." What does it indicate to make this announcement? It means that construction workers are still not being paid and are threatening suicide, so it is to pre-empt workers from threatening suicide that this was announced. …
[What is] the burden on Chinese workers[?]
Having worked for a whole year, that income is extremely important for them when they go back to the countryside. They rely on that cash, maybe not so much in buying grain, because they're supposed to grow their own grain, but to buy clothes, to have medical [care], and they need to have to pay education fees for their kids; it's no longer free. That is why if a teenager who is very bright and is able to get into a university in the city -- it costs more than 10,000 yuan to go for a year to study in the city -- there is no way they can do it [without the money], so this cash is very important. …