Not Just ‘Tools That Breathe’: Labor Activism Steps Forward in China

Michelle Chen

Job seekers stand behind their ads for work as a driver at the Jinjiang District "Human Resources Market" in February 2009 in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China.

As Obama embarks on a tense diplomatic visit to Asia, the political buzz surrounding China has reached a fever pitch lately. U.S. labor is up in arms over currency and offshoring, activists decry human rights abuses, and lawmakers wring their hands over the yawning trade deficit. Beneath all the political anxieties, though, there is a massive and often misunderstood population of working people.

When they challenge China, American activists tend to focus on excoriating Beijing’s political heavyweights. Yet, as we’ve reported before, China has its own nascent labor movement, whose struggles have helped frame many of the key issues facing the government, from freedom of speech to fair wages to environmental justice.

China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based rights organization, sees new potential and new threats for the workers at the core of the world’s economic engine.

The state-sponsored All China Federation Trade Union is often seen as a shill for the government. But the CLB reports on an intriguing memo just issued by the ACFTU, which calls on state-owned enterprises to be more respectful of workers’ organizing efforts.

The disruption and consolidation of local unions in the process of corporate restructuring,” the union said, is one of the main causes of mass incidents, and severely influences the harmonious stability between enterprises and society.”

CLB’s William Nee sees the announcement as a positive sign, though the ACFTU still leans toward rubber-stampery: while local unions are urged to do things like nominating model workers, giving out awards, and other appraisal and evaluation activities – the document doesn’t specifically mention collective bargaining or other more specific legal functions it could play to defend workers’ interests.”

But Chinese officials do seem to realize that, with tens of thousands of mass incidents,” like strikes and civil disobedience, springing up annually, labor unrest can’t be contained.

In Shanxi Province, the state media reported in October that several people were killed after armed thugs cracked down on protesters, who had rallied to oppose the sale of a coal plant to a private investor.

Though recent mergers of private and state-run mines in Shanxi are supposedly aimed at curbing corruption and improving work conditions, CLB’s Han Dong Fang argues that whether controlled by government or private hands, workers are stuck in a chokehold. He argues,

in both state-owned and privately-owned coal mines, mine workers have no right or opportunity to stand up for or defend their personal interests with regard to work safety, wages and benefits, working hours etc. Indeed, employers in both state-owned and privately-operated coal mines tend to view mine workers as little more than mining tools that breathe.’

While miners struggle for air, the manufacturing hub of Dongguan has become a legal battlefield for disaffected migrant workers. Labor disputes have spiked in recent years, and earlier this year, the desperation culminated in the murder of two managers at a factory. The government is now reportedly clamping down on grassroots legal advocates who help workers press their claims for relief.

At the intersection of economic and ethnic unrest, a clash at a Guangdong toy factory between workers of Han and Uighur minority descent ignited massive riots last summer in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

In recent weeks, the government has detained several workers tied to a violent uprising in July against the management of Tonghua Iron and Steel Works in northeast Jilin Province. Additionally, the Labour Bulletin keeps a running tab of labor activists who have been imprisoned by the authorities, often under shadowy circumstances.

Overall, China’s track record on human rights is getting dingier by the day. Human Rights Watch just put out a scathing report on black jails,” secret prisons that have subjected an untold number of citizen petitioners to physical, psychological and sexual brutality, as well as deprivation of food, sleep, and medical care.”

Chinese worker-activists are in some ways politically and geographically isolated from their counterparts abroad. But the diversity of their experiences — and the spectrum of government responses — show that the Chinese labor is finding a collective voice, informed by the explosion of digital communications and rising global political consciousness.

Meanwhile, American unions may protest outsourcing, and watchdog groups can shame Beijing from afar. But the Middle Kingdom’s political landscape won’t shift unless activists here figure out how to build solidarity with grassroots movements over there.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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