Xuyi, China,- May 9, 2014:
Chinese sweatshops: they were the future, once
Once it was David Cameron’s jibe at Tony Blair. Then he used it self-deprecatingly to bid farewell to the Commons after the referendum. But it reflects an iron law that what was once seen as the future soon becomes the past. And, Chinese trade unionists and labour rights activists have been telling UK trade unions today, the same happens in economics.
Over the past decade or so, Chinese workers’ wages in the industrial heart of the country on the south and east coast, including the Special Economic Zones, have risen substantially. Maybe not to western levels, but way higher than their parents ever earned. This is the result of job vacancies outstripping the supply of skilled and even semi-skilled labour; direct Chinese government policies to stimulate demand by increasing domestic purchasing power (especially as international demand for Chinese goods collapsed after the global financial crisis); and worker wage militancy too, despite repression and stave violence.
The response by employers – Chinese and global – has been eerily familiar. Representatives of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), its affiliate the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) are on a tour of the UK organised by War on Want, and they visited the TUC to start their visit today. They described employer attempts to stem workers’ organisation for higher wages, but also the development of insecure employment in China and offshoring of jobs to even lower wage economies across south east Asia. It’s exactly the pattern that UK employers used to address similar pressures in our domestic labour market.
Inherent in the idea of insecure work (as John Lanchester points out regarding the forces driving Brexit), is the idea that someone else is fundamentally in charge. Chinese employers have created insecurity in the form of long working hours, poor health and safety, and a general informalisation of wage payments (such as forgetting to bother paying people, shortchanging them on pension and social security contributions or walking away from failing factories without making redundancy payments.) Many Chinese industrial workers are insecure because they are migrants – not from other countries, but from rural areas: internal migrants often lose out on social security and other employment rights, as well as not having votes or the right to put their kids in local schools.
The offshoring of workers’ jobs is fuelling supply chain violations of worker and trade union rights in countries like Burma, Cambodia and Thailand, as well as leaving Chinese workers without jobs. But the Chinese activists who visited us this afternoon were also still having to campaign against multinational employers sourcing from Chinese factories, such as UNIQLO, but then that, too, reflects what’s going on in the UK. As the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) has revealed, insecure employment and low wages have allowed some companies to ‘re-shore’ exploitative garment work to places like the East Midlands.
Workers in China are striking in huge numbers without being reported in the Chinese, still less the international, media. They are met with violent harassment and repression from the police, far worse than anything we’ve seen in over a generation. But many of the management responses to rising pay are depressingly familiar.