Monday, June 21, 2010

Confidence to Fight for their Rights Spreads Among Workers in China

Workers gather outside Honda Lock factory as they go on strike in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, China. (Photograph: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

As reported in the New York Times, labor disputes continue to grow in China with workers more willing to defend their rights and demand higher wages, encouraged by new laws from Beijing.

The Labor Contract Law enacted in January 2008 tries to guarantee contracts for all full-time employees and another law enacted in May 2008 helped streamline the system of arbitration and lawsuits. The laws are intended to channel worker frustrations through a system of arbitration and courts.

In 2008, nearly 700,000 labor disputes went to arbitration, almost double the number in 2007. Close to another 700,000 labor disputes went to arbitration in 2009. Chinese workers or employers can also appeal to civil courts.

But the laws have also unintentionally contributed to an increase in militant workplace actions, such as the strike at the Honda Lock auto parts factory in Zhongshan. Recent strikes and a surge in arbitration and court cases reflect a leap in worker consciousness partly rooted in awareness of greater legal rights.

“Publicity regarding the Labor Contract Law had a tremendous impact on raising worker consciousness,” Aaron Halegua, a lawyer based in New York who is a consultant on Chinese labor law, told the New York Times.

One 19-year-old worker on strike last week at the Honda Lock auto parts factory in Zhongshan said: “We heard about the new labor law, but we don’t know the details. We know we should fight for our rights.”

Workers for Honda in Zhongshan made the formation of an independent union one of their main demands, along with wage increases. But Chinese workers still do not have the legal right to form unions independent of the government-run union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

Early drafts of the Labor Contract Law had clauses that would have allowed for more independent unions, but those were excised from the final version, said Mary E. Gallagher, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies Chinese labor.

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