MAC: Mines and Communities

New report exposes China's Labour attrition

Published by MAC on 2009-07-16

Bloody inter-ethnic conflicts between Uighurs and Hans in western China, as well as recurring violence meted out against citizens in occupied Tibet, have dominated much recent reporting from the world’s most populous state.

Understandable though this may be, in contrast the daily, often structural, oppression of millions of workers goes largely noticed outside China. It also attracts precious little objective analysis within the country - even where people have been murdered, viciously attacked by bosses and police or suffered arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB) has, for some years, performed an invaluable role in presenting such analyses.

CLB’s latest report, published on July 9 2009, doesn’t yield to platitudes, painting instead a complex picture, where some labour rights have been gained. However, workers are saddled with the “paradox” of belonging to the world’s largest trade union organisation that, while pushing for improved conditions while refuses to intervene on behalf of victims at the workplace.  

No wonder that, even when totally unacceptable conditions are officially acknowledged, the authorities signally fail to make redress, to detain offenders, and often allow egregious abuses to continue.

The report’s title - “Going it alone” – aptly reflects the overall response of Chinese workers to what has been, during 2008 a year of massive discontent.

Highlighting extractive industry

Valuably, the report also summarises the nature of a hundred worker-employer-state conflicts, 12% of which directly concern operations at mines, metallurgical plants and cement and brick factories:  

“According to official figures, the safety record of China’s notoriously dangerous coal mines improved marginally during the reporting period, largely due to the forced closure of small and unlicensed mines in 2007. The number of officially reported deaths in China’s coal mines in 2007 was 3,786, about 20 percent less than in 2006. And in 2008, the number of deaths fell another 15 percent to 3,215. The number of major mine accidents dropped significantly in 2007.”

However, says CLB, the accident rate “increased again the following year as the authorities were forced to reopen mines previously closed in its consolidation campaign, some with a production capacity of as little as 10,000 tonnes a year, in order to meet growing domestic demand for energy.”

 In 2008, there were also “42 major accidents at factories, mines and trade enterprises around China, leaving 689 people dead and missing.”

Of these, no less than  thirty one “occurred at mines, causing 503 fatalities, a year-on-year increase of seven disasters and 120 victims. There were ten disasters with “exceptional loss of life” (30 or more deaths), claiming 662 victims, including five underground accidents leaving 174 people dead or missing. One of the most infamous disasters occurred on 8 September 2008 when an iron ore tailings reservoir at the Tashan Iron Ore Mine in Shanxi’s Xingfen county collapsed, sending a devastating torrent of sludge into Yunhe village, with a population of 1,300, mostly migrant workers. In total, 276 people died.”

But mine disasters were not the only human tragedy during this period:

“Perhaps the most horrific case was revealed in May 2007 when the parents of several hundred missing children, with the help of a local television station, exposed the existence of Shanxi’s slave labour brickyards. The parents claimed that children as young as eight years old had been kidnapped and sold for 500 yuan a head to illegal brickyard operators in Shanxi and nearby Henan.

“The television exposure caused a national scandal and the central government reacted swiftly in an attempt to calm public anger. A massive investigation uncovered 3,186 unlicensed brick factories employing 81,000 workers but claimed only a few hundred had been held against their will, including about a dozen children.”

Nonetheless, CLB’s investigation into slave labour showed that “one year after the scandal’s exposure, many reportedly freed slaves had not yet returned home, some of those who had done so were forced to beg for a living, officials who failed in their duty of care were still on the job, and the slave traffickers and slave factories were still in business.

“According to official figures, a total of 95 Party officials in eight Shanxi counties, including 18 senior county level officials, were subjected to a range of “disciplinary” measures in the wake of the scandal. Three were expelled from the Party, three were placed on probation, 31 were dismissed, 19 demoted, 29 were given demerits, and 34 were given warnings.”

Yet, “[d]espite the fact that local Party officials must have been aware of, or were even directly involved in, the Shanxi slave labour scandal, none were criminally prosecuted…. Once rescued from the brick factories, the victims were given next to no support or assistance from the authorities.

Moreover: “[L]abourers were routinely beaten and abused by guards, the 31 victims were shunted around  different departments for days before being sent back to Caosheng village – where factory owner Wang Bingbing’s father served as Party secretary. They were then escorted to the railway station, given between 200 yuan and 400 yuan in travel expenses and sent home. Eight of the 31 victims went missing during the trip home.”

Going it alone: a new report on the state of the workers' movement in China

Press release from China Labour Bulletin

Hong Kong

9 July 2009

China's workers are taking to the streets in ever increasing numbers. Angered by management abuses, and emboldened by the passage of new labour legislation, they are staging strikes, roadblocks and protests to demand the payment of wages in arrears, better working conditions and even the right to set up their own trade union branches.

In a new research report published today, China Labour Bulletin looks at how the workers' movement in China has developed over the last two years, how the government has responded to it, and why the official trade union has been unable or unwilling to play a positive role in it.

Going it Alone: The Workers' Movement in China analyses 100 collective labour protests that took place in 2007 and 2008, and identifies three major trends:

During this period of enhanced worker activism, however, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions was conspicuous by its absence from the scene. The ACFTU launched high-profile campaigns to unionise the Fortune 500 and to conclude collective labour contracts at all Walmart stores in China but this did little to help the workers concerned. Union membership increased to 212 million, and yet, the vast majority of workers still distrusted the management-controlled enterprise unions and felt alienated from the remote and bureaucratic local-level unions.

CLB asks whether China's workers and trade union are destined to drift even further apart or is there some way they can overcome their mutual suspicion and mistrust and work together. It suggests that if the union can summon the political will to stand side-by-side with the workers in their disputes, there is hope for the future. But, if it continues on its current path it will become just another government department, largely irrelevant to the fundamental needs of the workers it is supposed to represent.

Going it Alone: The Workers' Movement in China (2007-2008) is available as a 57-page PDF on the CLB website


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