Labour 劳工

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By Ivan Franceschini

This lexicon item consists of the following sub-sections:



When the International Labour Organization (ILO) held its first Conference in Washington in 1919 following the end of the First World War, a discussion arose around the issue of labour conditions in China. The Conference proposed the creation of a social legislation in China, with the aim of protecting workers in more advanced countries against competition from the low-paid labour force in East Asia. It suggested the enforcement of a limit of ten working hours per day and sixty hours per week for adults in factories employing more than one hundred people. In 1923, regulations to this effect were finally issued by the Chinese government, although they were never enforced.

Almost a century later, Chinese labour is still at the centre of the international debate, with the ‘China price’ being blamed for what is perceived as a general decline in labour conditions, wages and labour protection in many developed countries. In the last three decades, after the Chinese government decided to open the economy of the country to the world, stories of low wages, unpaid salaries, labour accidents, mass lay-offs and strikes have been widely and regularly reported by the Chinese and international media, fuelling criticism of the so-called ‘world factory’. This, in turn, has nourished the idea that China, thanks to its artificially repressed labour costs, is literally ‘sucking’ jobs from developed countries. This discourse particularly gained traction after 2001, following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

The story of this ‘China price’ dates back over three decades. Before the beginning of the economic reforms in 1978, China had no labour markets for industrial workers and jobs were allocated by the state. Then China’s state-dominated industry had a particular employment model, often described as the ‘iron rice bowl’ (tiefanwan 铁饭碗), a term which designated a lifetime position with low monetary salaries but comprehensive welfare and benefits provided by a state-run ‘work unit’ (danwei 单位). Salaries were kept ‘rationally’ low, while markets were replaced by a rationing system, and the work unit became a redistributive hub in urban areas.

The situation began to change gradually in the 1980s, following three distinct processes:

  • first, the development of a private sector in China, boosted by foreign investments in Special Economic Zones;
  • secondly, the loosening of controls on internal migrations, accompanied by the appearance of urban markets for food, houses and other goods; and,
  • thirdly, the introduction in 1986 of the labour contract system for all new employees in state industries.

The final blow to the ‘iron rice bowl’ employment model then came in the mid 1990s, when the authorities decided to implement the 1989 Bankruptcy Law and allow many State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to go bankrupt, especially small and inefficient ones, while retaining control and reinforcing the largest enterprises and the most strategic industries.

With the progressive demise of ‘work units’ (although many large enterprises continued to provide above-average welfare to their workers) and the emergence of a labour market (in fact a number of fragmented, local labour markets), a new set of social problems emerged: shortage of skilled labour was accompanied by unemployment of the traditionally privileged state workers, labour disputes were ripe and frequent, low and unpaid wages and excessive overtime became common in certain booming industries like construction, all in the virtual absence of a social security net that could replace the role of the work-unit. In this context of legal uncertainty and scarce supervision, sweatshops (xuehan gongchang 血汗工厂) have appeared everywhere, causing recurrent uproar among the public opinion, both in China and abroad.

To deal with this situation, over the past two decades the Chinese authorities have introduced a series of laws which not only regulate labour relations in the workplace, but also aim to enhance labour protection. The 2007 Labour Contract Law, despite on-going problems with implementation, is generally considered a big step forward for Chinese workers’ rights. Other important laws include the Labour Law (1994) that defined the rights of Chinese workers and their basic protection; the Trade Union Law (1992, amended in 2001) that better defined the role of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU, Zhonghua quanguo zonggonghui 中华全国总工会) but maintains its monopoly of labour representation; the Labour Disputes Mediation and Arbitration Law (2007), the Employment Promotion Law (2007) and the Social Security Law (2010). The passing of each of these laws has been accompanied by heated public debate. When the first draft of the Labour Contract Law was published in March 2006, for example, more than 192,000 comments were submitted in a month.

It is often noted that while China has a large number of labour regulations, they are not properly implemented, or they are applied unevenly in different parts of the country or in different industries. One of the reasons given for this situation is the overwhelming importance of economic growth, in particular in the eyes of local governments and local leaders. Dependency on international capital (leading to a reluctance to enforce labour regulations by local governments) is another oft-cited factor. Among the opinions submitted after the publication of the first draft Labour Contract Law, critical documents issued by foreign chambers of commerce suggested that such a law would have had a negative impact on the country’s competitiveness and its appeal as a destination for foreign investment. In the following months, as a result of more discussion and further critiques, new drafts largely expunged the most innovative clauses of the law, ones which, if implemented, would have given Chinese workers and the official union a significant voice in workplace-related matters.

Despite resistance from local state and foreign investors, the context for China’s labour market is undergoing significant change. In 2003, for the first time the Chinese media reported that the flow of migrant workers from the countryside had started to dry up and that many factories in the most developed coastal areas could not fill vacancies. Since then, the so-called ‘migrant labour famine’ (mingong huang 民工荒) has become a significant problem for local authorities and entrepreneurs in the highly industrialized areas on the Chinese littoral. With the passage of time, a new generation of better-skilled migrant workers has become both more aware of opportunities and more demanding. This has resulted in higher costs for factories in labour intensive sectors, while the most advanced regions have changed their economic strategy from export orientation to higher-yielding production for the domestic consumer market. It has been observed that such structural changes will eventually lead to a general increase in wages and an improvement of labour conditions.

Chinese workers have never been silent when confronted with the infringements of their rights. According to a study of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2003 alone about 58,000 ‘mass incidents’ occurred involving more than three million people. Among them, the most relevant social groups were workers and pensioners, with about 1,660,000 participants, 46.9 percent of the total number. Nevertheless, it appears that worker protests in China are mainly driven by economic reasons and rarely end up challenging the official narratives promoted by the state. They attempt instead to manipulate the official discourses in a sort of captatio benevolentiæ intended for the authorities. Furthermore, most of the workers’ protests just aim at addressing the violation of rights that have already been recognized by the state, not at pressing for new rights.

Two major incidents in the spring of 2010 contributed to focusing international interest on Chinese workers campaigns:

  • first, the Chinese and international media widely reported a series of suicides at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, linking them to poor labour conditions and managerial strategies adopted by this Taiwanese company; and,
  • then, a few weeks later, a major strike started at a Honda factory in Nanhai, where workers demanded not only higher salaries, but also the right to a more representative union.

Since then, the Chinese and Western discourses about Chinese labour have been shifting. While for many years workers, especially migrant workers, were portrayed as powerless victims under assault from the forces of international capitalism, 2010 witnessed the rise of a new narrative framed in terms of ‘rights awakening’. This new narrative often highlights the importance of a generational transition, as younger workers are seen as being smarter, better educated and therefore more conscious of their rights than their elders.



This sub-section has the following parts:


The Official Chinese View

The official narrative regarding labour in China depicts workers, especially state employees, even today as the true masters of the country (zhuren weng 主人翁). This idea is still reproduced, after several revisions of the PRC Constitution, that, in Article 42, states that: ‘Work is the glorious duty of every able-bodied citizen. All working people in state-owned enterprises and in urban and rural economic collectives should perform their tasks with an attitude consonant with their status as masters of the country.’

Despite its recent embrace of other social groups, in particular the admission of entrepreneurs to Party membership, under the aegis of former Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s Theory of Three Represents, the Chinese Communist Party still draws part of its legitimacy from its historic relationship with the working class. The Party Constitution, defines the Communist Party of China as the ‘vanguard both of the Chinese working class and of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation’, while its members are ‘vanguard fighters of the Chinese working class imbued with communist consciousness’.

The contradiction between the language of a working class state and the reality in today’s labour market is evident to both observers and the Chinese Communist Party. This is compounded by the fact that the Chinese working class is today much more complex than it was before, fragmented in a number of different groups with different and at times competing interests. Not only is the position of migrant workers different from that of the xiagang 下岗 workers (laid-off workers from former State Owned Enterprises), but within each group a complex fragmentation based on age, education, and skills is also emerging. In a society where families invest heavily in education, many also see as problematic the ‘ant tribe’ (yizu 蚁族) of under-employed or unemployed university graduates.

In response to the more complex situation, the Chinese authorities have promoted a new narrative of the working class, one which is articulated in legal terms and revolves around the centrality of workers’ rights in the overall ‘rule of law’. At the same time, some concepts coming from the pre-reform era have been retrieved and adapted to contemporary realities.

Harmonious labour relations

The term Harmonious Labour Relations (hexie laodong guanxi 和谐劳动关系) has been coined in recent years to define the official goals of labour policy. According to the official definition, harmonious labour relations have four main features. They should be:

  • contractual (hetongxing 合同性)
  • based on the rule of law (fazhixing 法治性)
  • democratic (minzhuxing 民主性); and,
  • aimed both at rescuing the working class and maintain social stability (jiuzhuxing 救助性).

The main components of this discourse can be found in labour contracts, labour supervision and workers’ quality (suzhi 素质).

The legal protection of rights is a fundamental element of the narrative on harmonious labour relations. According to the White Paper on the Socialist Legal System with Chinese Characteristics, by the end of August 2011, the Chinese government had enacted eighteen ‘social laws’, that is regulations to guide labour relations, social security, social welfare and protection of rights and interests of special groups. This official document underlines the fact that: ‘China’s Labour Law deals with labour relations and other relationships closely related to them, such as labour protection, labour safety and hygiene, occupational training, labour disputes and labour supervision, thus establishing China’s basic labour system’.

Besides the 1994 Labour Law – the first comprehensive regulation of labour relations in every company on the Chinese territory irrespective of ownership – in the past twenty years Chinese central authorities have enacted a series of labour related laws which include the Law on Mine Safety; the Law on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases; the Production Safety Law; the Labour Contract Law; the Employment Promotion Law; the Law on Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration; the Trade Union Law; and the Social Insurance Law.

Since the early 1990s, the government has also been strongly promoting the legal process among workers, publicly exhorting them to ‘use the weapon of the law’ (yi falü wei wuqi 以法律为武器) to protect their lawful interests and rights. Legal materials and handbooks produced by the government and the official union have been widely distributed and the texts of the new laws have been widely publicized. In particular, the 2007 Labour Contract Law has received an extensive coverage by the Chinese official media, with the Party mouthpiece People’s Daily even calling for a public contest to test the knowledge of the new Law among the readers.

Nevertheless, this strong legal discourse often clashes with the inefficiency and the structural problems of the Chinese legal system. Workers who want to redress their grievances through officially sanctioned channels not only have to face the partiality and inefficiency of state actors as legal aid centres, labour offices, letters and visits bureaus and trade unions, but also the scarce interests in labour disputes by professional lawyers. Under such circumstances, many workers develop an attitude that the scholar Mary Gallagher has defined as ‘informed disenchantment’.

According to Gallagher, Chinese workers who use the Law would rapidly move from high expectations to a very negative evaluation of the effectiveness of the legal process. As a result, the entire system revolving around the administration of justice produces a group of citizens who are perfectly aware of the legal mechanisms but also completely disenchanted (see: Mary Gallagher, ‘Hope for Protection and Hopeless Choices: Labor legal aid in the PRC’, in Elizabeth Perry and Merle Goldman, eds, Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, pp.196-227)

A Sense of Mastery

In the Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 Wen Jiabao 温家宝 decade (2003-2012), in an attempt to mitigate the worrying effects of the reforms a greater emphasis was placed on social aspects of development. In this context, the narrative about labour has undergone a notable shift, especially with regards to migrant workers (nongmingong 农民工) and other marginal groups (ruoshi qunti 弱势群体).

According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2011 there were 240 million workers working away from their place of residence. Despite changes in the strict household registration system that prevented mobility from rural areas to industrial centres during the Maoist era, these workers still have a different status from that of local residents in the receiving areas, mainly urban or peri-urban. As non-residents, they are entitled to work but not to have access to the welfare provisions available to local residents. Thus, their situation greatly depends on the capacity or willingness of their employers to pay for health, accident and old age insurance schemes.

While an all-out abolition of the household registration system (hukou zhidu 户口制度) still seems unlikely, in the last few years the government has promoted numerous policies specifically aimed at addressing migrant workers’ problems. These have accorded with the principles outlined in a 2006 State Council document entitled ‘Some Opinions on Resolving the Problems Faced by Migrant Workers‘ and in a 2008 State Council document, ‘Notice on Doing Well the Current Work on Migrant Workers‘. Such policies include the provision of free education to migrant children in urban schools and a number of provisions regarding social security.

Also, various local administrations that bear the blunt of managing large numbers of migrants, have experimented directly with the reform of the household registration system in order to better integrate migrant workers and recently urbanized farmers in the urban welfare system. For example, in June 2010 Guangdong province adopted a new ‘point system’ that rewards migrant workers with special characteristics or who perform certain social duties with an urban registration; in April 2011, Chengdu in Sichuan province abolished altogether any remaining distinction between citizens with rural and urban household registration status.

In recent years, China’s official media has also been actively promoting a new narrative about migrant workers which emphasizes their contribution to the Chinese economy and their fundamental role in driving the country’s development. This new ‘spirit of mastery’ (zhurenweng jingshen 主人翁精神) echoes the role of state workers in pre-reform, Maoist-era ideology. Examples of this discourse are now ubiquitous. We offer here an example of migrant workers’ performances broadcasted during the China Central Television (CCTV) annual Spring Festival Gala, a variety show staged annually to celebrate Chinese New Year that attracts the largest viewing audience in China.

The following video is taken from the 2011 Spring Festival broadcast. The song presented herein, ‘We the Workers are Strong!‘, is an old propaganda tune written in 1947 and adapted for the occasion.

Similarly, in the 2008 Spring Festival Gala, dancers impersonating workers sang ‘Yesterday I was a Farmer, Today I am a Worker!’ (The song of the migrant worker).

Finally, in this scene from The Founding of a Party, a film produced in 2011 to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, one of the communist forefathers, Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, harangues the workers, reminding them of their contribution to the well-being of the people.

Socialist Trade Unionism with Chinese Characteristics

Trade unions in China are described as being ‘mass organizations’, and they maintain the monopoly of representation of worker interests. The Chinese party-state promotes what it calls ‘socialist trade unionism with Chinese characteristics’ (juyou Zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi gonghui 具有中国特色社会主义工会), as recently reaffirmed during the Sixth Plenum of the Fifth Executive Committee of the official union federation, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

The Trade Union Law permits the establishment of basic-level trade union committees in any enterprise, institution or government department that has a membership of twenty-five or more. The establishment of basic-level trade union organizations, local trade union federations, as well as national or local industrial trade union organizations requires the oversight of the official trade union organization at the next higher level for approval, with the ACFTU as the unified national organization. According to official data, in 2010, the ACFTU had 239,965,000 members, more than 88 million of them migrant workers, organized in 1,976,000 grassroots unions. China’s unionism therefore maintains a corporative structure that makes it illegal for grassroots trade unions to operate independently of the ACFTU.

The ACFTU is itself under the supervision of the Party. It is required to: ‘observe and safeguard the Constitution, take it as the fundamental criterion for their activities, take economic development as the central task, uphold the socialist road, the people’s democratic dictatorship, leadership by the Communist Party of China, and Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, persevere in the policies of reform and opening, and conduct their work independently in accordance with the Constitution of trade unions’ (Article 4). Its basic duties are: ‘to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of workers and staff members. While protecting the overall interests of the entire Chinese people, trade unions shall represent and safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of workers and staff members’ (Article 6).

With a structure still based on the Leninist principle of democratic centralism, ACFTU’s behaviour is thwarted by its contradictory role as defender of both workers’ rights and the enterprise’s interests. Trade union officials emphasize the search for a ‘win-win’ (shuangying 双赢) for workers and management, and underline the importance of a cooperative approach between social parties.

As Guo Jun 郭军, then head of the Democratic Management Department of the ACFTU, said in an interview with Southern Weekend newspaper in early 2008

Those enterprises [who fear the effects of the new labour legislation] have not noticed a very important issue: the Unions’ idea of rights protection emphasizes cooperation with the enterprises to achieve a common success [hezuo gongying 合作共赢], the quest for the interests of both labour and capital [laozi liangli 劳资两利] and a collaborative development [gongmou fazhan 共谋发展], while in the process protecting employees’ rights and interests.


Contending Views

Despite the political sensitivity of the issue of labour rights, the domestic debate has been intense and dissenting views have circulated in various forms. The ACFTU often takes positions in this debate, although not much of the internal discussion surfaces outside of the organization.

Chinese Academic Debates

The Chinese scholastic community is very vocal in debating labour policies and disputes, and this occasionally features in the mainstream Chinese media. Two issues have been particularly central in this discussion in recent years: the right to strike and the new contract law.

The right to strike (bagongquan 罢工权), is one of the grey areas in the labour legislation ever since it was excluded from the Constitution in the early Eighties, after the emergence of the Solidarność movement in Poland. Many Chinese scholars, as well as ACFTU officials, advocate the amendment of the existing regulations or the adoption of a specific law to officially recognize the right to strike. In June 2010, after the attention given by the Chinese media to the Honda strikes, a leading scholar went as far as to declare that: ‘if the workers do not have the right to strike, they are not respected’. Other observers have argued that implementing a law on strike in China at this time would, paradoxically, restrict workers’ ability to use industrial action to improve their working conditions.

The debate on the 2007 Labour Contract Law polarised around two contending schools of thought: the first, often identified with professor Chang Kai 常凯 of People’s University (an institute traditionally close to the Party bureaucracy), advocated a greater involvement of the state in labour relations in order to balance the unmitigated power of management and market; the second, led by professor Dong Baohua 董保华 of East China University of Political Science and Law, argued instead for a better implementation of the existing laws and a market regulation of labour. In 2006 and 2007, Chang and Dong engaged in a increasingly public debate, with their opinions often appearing on both domestic and international media.

Worker Activists

If strikes are very common in China, activists who try to direct workers’ dissatisfaction in the direction of creating an independent labour movement are often harshly punished by the authorities. Emblematic is the story of Zhao Dongmin 赵东民, a labour activist who was sentenced to three years in jail for ‘gathering a crowd to disrupt social order’ (juzhong naoshi 聚众闹事). Zhao was first arrested in August 2009 after organising 380 workers from about twenty state-owned enterprises in Shaanxi province to form a labour rights group to monitor the restructuring of SOEs and report corruption and abuses of power. The group was officially banned in July 2009.

Domestic Labour NGOs

According to the available evidence, in mainland China there are a few dozens grassroots labour NGOs. Unfortunately, the only data available are based on personal estimates of people who work in the sector. For example, Liu Kaiming 刘开明, founder and director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation (Dangdai shehui guancha yanjiusuo 当代社会观察研究所), told the newspaper Nanfang Dushibao in 2007 that about fifty labour NGOs were active in the Pearl River Delta with more than 200 people involved totally. Roughly at the same time, Huang Yan 黄岩 from South China Normal University told the publication Nanfeng Chuang that in the Pearl River Delta there were only about thirty such organizations, each employing two or three activists.

In some cases, these organizations are established by former workers and can only survive thanks to a substantial financial support from international trade unions and other foreign foundations and organizations. The widespread belief is that these labour NGOs are harbinger of independent unionism in China or little short of a ‘Chinese workers self-salvation movement’. The political context they operate in, however, constrains their ability to challenge the official narratives about labour rights and often reproduce mainstream, state-produced discourses. Despite these limitations, Chinese labour NGOs are an invaluable source of information and public awareness about Chinese labour both for international organizations and the media.

International Trade Unions and NGOs

Critical voices are far stronger abroad than they are in China. The Hong Kong labour movement is particularly active. Some of the most influential voices include the China Labour Bulletin, an NGO founded by Han Dongfang 韩东方, a former labour leader who went into exile in the early 1990s for his role in the 1989 Beijing Protest Movement; the Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), an NGO established by scholars from Hong Kong and the mainland, particularly active in denouncing malpractices in global corporations, primarily Foxconn (the Taiwanese manufacturer of Apple products that employs more than a million workers in mainland China); and Globalization Monitor, which produces important surveys on labour conditions in factories on the mainland. Other important actors are the international unions, especially the International Trade Union Confederation, that publishes an annual survey of violations of trade union rights.


International Scholarship: an annotated review

International scholars have produced a consistent body of literature on the history of the Chinese labour movement. Most of these studies focus on a specific period of Chinese modern history, as Jean Chesneaux’s The Chinese Labor Movement (1968), which describe the dawn of the Chinese labour movement in the decade 1919-1927; François Gipoloux’s Les Cent Fleurs a l’Usine (1986), which analyses workers’ role in the Hundred Flowers Campaign; or Elizabeth Perry’s Patrolling the Revolution (2006) on workers’ militias during the Cultural Revolution. Some studies describe the history of the Chinese workers’ movement in a longer temporal arch, as is the case of Jackie Sheehan’s Chinese Workers: A New History (1998) and Elizabeth Perry’s Shanghai on Strike (1993).

Significant attention has been devoted to the issues of Chinese industrial relations. While some of these studies focus on industrial relations in specific periods of Chinese history, as Bill Brugger’s Democracy and Organisation in the Chinese Industrial Enterprise, 1948-1953 (2010), others tackle more general issues related to organisation and power relations inside the work-units in the pre-reform and early reform eras, as Andrew Walder’s Communist Neo-traditionalism (1988); Xiaobo Lü and Elizabeth Perry’s edited volume Danwei: The Changing Chinese Workplace in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1997); Sally Sargeson’s Reworking China’s Proletariat (1999); and Mark Frazier’s The Making of the Chinese Workplace (2002). More general studies deal with the issue of the labour reform, describing the policy-making processes which led to the demise of the work units and the creation of a labour market in China, for example Luigi Tomba’s Paradoxes of Labour Reform (2002).

The issue of migrant workers’ labour conditions in Chinese factories, as well the impact of the global capital on Chinese labour, are topics of great interest for the international scholar community, as well for the media. In this regard, Anita Chan’s collection of accounts translated from the Chinese media in China’s Workers Under Assault (2001) has become a classic. Part of this literature has a strong focus on gender, as is the case with Ching Kwan Lee’s Gender and the South China Miracle (1998), Pun Ngai’s Made in China (2005) and Tamara Jacka’s Rural Women in Urban China (2005). Other studies specifically tackle the role of international capital in the worsening of labour conditions in China, such as Mary Gallagher’s Contagious Capitalism (2005), or focus on specific companies for their case studies, as Anita Chan’s edited volume on Walmart in China (2011).

Much has been written about worker protests and contentious labour politics over the last decade. Probably, the most influential book on the topic is Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law (2007), which underlines the different pattern of mobilisation among migrant workers in Shenzhen and laid-off workers in Liaoning. Other studies focus on the dynamics of resistance by specific social groups, especially laid-off workers, as Yongshun Cai’s State and Laid-off Workers in Reform China (2005) and William Hurst’s The Chinese Worker after Socialism (2012), or migrant workers, as Chris Chan’s The Challenge of Labour in China (2010). There is also a growing body of literature focusing on the Chinese official union, from Lee Lai To’s Trade Unions in China, 1949 to the present (1986) to Tim Pringle’s Trade Unions in China (2011).

Other studies focus on legal issues related to Chinese labour laws and regulations, especially labour disputes resolution, but this kind of studies can hardly keep up with the very rapid change in Chinese legal landscape. A more recent field conjugates labour studies with media studies. Worth mentioning in this regard are Sun Wanning’s Maid in China (2009) on the production and consumption of popular media among domestic workers, and Jack Linchuan Qiu’s Working-Class Network Society (2009) on the use of new media among workers. Finally, some recent studies have placed Chinese labour in a comparative perspective, including Dorothy Solinger’s States’ Gains, Labor’s Losses (2009).


Media Representation

Chinese labour issues are widely covered in the international media, especially when major companies are involved in scandals related to labour conditions in their Chinese supplier’s factories. Household brands like Nike, Walmart, MacDonald, Pizza Hut and Apple have all been involved in Chinese labour-related scandals reported by the international media in recent years. Such global media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The Economist regularly report on Chinese labour disputes and occasionally produce more in-depth analysis about the changes in the Chinese labour market. In light of this widespread reporting, the ‘China price’ has long been one of the main concerns for the public in many Western countries.

After major events such as the recent Honda strikes and the Foxconn incidents, the international media started promoting a narrative which was mainly framed in terms of an ‘awakening’ of Chinese workers. Such headlines as ‘The Rising Power of the Chinese Worker‘ (The Economist), ‘The Rise of a Chinese Worker’s Movement‘ (Businessweek), ‘An Independent Labor Movement Stirs in China‘ (The New York Times) have become increasingly common, and Time magazine went as far as to designate the common ‘Chinese worker’ as Person of the Year in 2009.

Numerous reporters have also published books on the topic. The most prominent were The China Price (2008), written by Financial Times editor Alexandra Harney, and Factory Girls (2008), authored by The Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Chang. While Harney’s book is more analytical, Chang’s volume focuses on the life of two female migrant workers in Dongguan, Guangdong province, whose lives the author followed for a few years. Both books are based on extensive field research undertaken by the authors and offer the reader two different but equally vivid portraits of workers’ life in the ‘world factory’.

Many other books written by foreign journalists deal with the issue of Chinese labour in some of their chapters or sections. Among them, Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones (2007) describes a visit of the author to Shenzhen in the late 1990s. Country Driving (2010), by the same author, has an entire section dedicated to the vicissitudes of a small factory and its workers in a city not far from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow (2009) describes in detail a strike by SOE workers in Liaoyang city, which took place in 2002, and Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements (2003) offers a series of portraits of prominent Chinese labour activists.

International NGOs and labour groups also actively bring Chinese labour issues to the attention of the international media, with organisations China Labour Bulletin (CLB), China Labour Watch (CLW) and Student and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) often quoted by journalists as their sources. Occasionally, the leaders of these organisations contribute to the public debate, writing their own op-eds for prominent newspapers and magazines. The websites of these organisations are precious sources of information for anybody interested in Chinese labour issues.

Migrant workers have been protagonists of various documentary films which have been made in the past few years. Some of them have enjoyed popular and critical success, such as Micha Peled’s China Blue (2005), and Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009). Following are some interviews with Foxconn workers from the 2011 documentary film Dreamwork China, collected in Shenzhen by Tommaso Facchin and Ivan Franceschini.

Dreamwork China from Cineresie on Vimeo.



Republic of China, 1912-1949

1914-1918: Early wave of industrialization in China
1919: First conference of the International Labour Organization held in Washington recommends the introduction of labour legislation in China
August 1921: Secretariat for the Organization of Labour established by the Chinese Communist Party
May 1922: First All-China Labour Conference held in Guangzhou
7 February 1923: Striking workers of the Beijing-Hankou railway line are massacred by the forces of warlord Wu Peifu
29 March 1923: First labour legislation adopted in China (‘Temporary Regulations on Factories’)
May 1925: All-China Federation of Trade Unions established in Guangzhou during the second All-China Labour Conference
30 May 1925: May Thirtieth Movement, general strikes launched in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong
11 April 1927: Killings of trade unionists and workers in Shanghai by the local triads
1927-1937: Laws on factories, trade unions and labour disputes passed by the nationalist government with capital in Nanjing
November 1931: Labour legislation passed by the communist government of the Jiangxi Soviet

People’s Republic of China, 1949-

1950: Trade Union Law passed
1951: Li Lisan, Minister of Labour and leader of the All- China Federation of Trade Unions, is purged after supporting greater autonomy for the official union
1953: Establishment of the household registration system
1955-1956: Complete nationalisation of the industry
Spring 1957: The All-China Federation of Trade Unions and workers take part in the Hundred Flowers movement and call for greater autonomy for Chinese unions. Purges ensue
1958-1960: Great Leap Forward
1960-1966: A ‘two-line struggle’ in industry, with the supporters of the ‘Anshan Constitution’ and the ‘Seventy Rules for Industry’ on opposite sides
1966-1978: All-China Federation of Trade Unions shut down, workers allowed to set up their own revolutionary groups in the factories
1975-1985: Reintroduction of flexible salary structures (piece rate and bonuses)
1978: Ninth Congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the official union is re-established
1980: Special Economic Zones established in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen and Hainan
1986: Enforcement of the labour contract system for all the new employees in State Owned Enterprises, formal end of life tenure or ‘iron rice bowl’ (tie fanwan 铁饭碗)
May-June 1989: Emergence of short-lived independent unions in various Chinese cities
1992: Deng Xiaoping’s Tour of the South. Amendment to the Trade Union Law
1994: Labour Law passed
1995: Reform of the State Owned Enterprises intensifies, according to the principle of ‘grasping the big and letting the small go’ (zhuada fangxiao 抓大放小)
2001: Amendment to the Trade Union Law
March 2006: Popular consultation on the first draft of the Labour Contract Law, more than 192,000 comments submitted in a month
2007: Labour Contract Law, Labour Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law and Employment Promotion Law passed
May 2010: Strike at the Honda factory in Nanhai widely reported by the Chinese and International media
2010: Social Security Law passed



Ant tribe (under-employed or unemployed university graduates) yizu 蚁族
All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) zhonghua quanguo zonggonghui 中华全国总工会
Foxconn (company name – a Taiwanese manufacturer of Apple products) fushikang 富士康
Harmonious labour relations hexie laodong guanxi 和谐劳动关系
Household registration system hukou zhidu 户口制度
Iron rice bowl tiefanwan 铁饭碗
Labour laodong 劳动
Laid-off workers xiagang 下岗
Marginal groups ruoshi qunti 弱势群体
Masters of the country zhuren weng 主人翁
Migrant labour famine mingong huang 民工荒
Migrant worker or labourer nongmingong 农民工
Quality (of a person) suzhi 素质
Socialist trade unionism with Chinese characteristics juyou zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi gonghui 具有中国特色社会主义工会
Sweatshop xuehan gongchang 血汗工厂
The right to strike bagongquan 罢工权
Union gonghui 工会
Use the weapon of the law yi falü wei wuqi 以法律为武器
Win-win shuangying 双赢
Work unit danwei 单位

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