The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Chinese labour in the global economy – What do we know?

From October 2011 to September 2014, we worked on the project Chinese labour in the global economy, supported by an ESRC research grant (RES-062-23-2777, £275k). Throughout this period, Chun-Yi Lee carried out a number of field research trips to China in order to interview workers, labour academics and representatives of informal labour NGOs. We organised a related panel at the World Congress of the International Sociological Association in Yokohama/Japan in July 2014 and held an international workshop at Nottingham University in September 2014. In this post, we provide an overview of the main findings of the project.

The key findings of the project can be summarised as follows:

1. China continues to be integrated into the global political economy mainly as an assembly platform for exports. Pre-fabricated parts are imported, assembled in Chinese factories and then exported to North America and Europe. Hence, China’s economic growth still depends on its enormous resource of cheap labour. Some attempts are made to expand into areas of more high-valued added production, but this is still very much at the beginning.

Migrant Chinese workers, Photo by Chris

2. Considering this dependence on cheap labour, conclusions about Chinese developmental catch-up and China emerging as the new economic hegemon at the world level are premature. Instead, Chinese development is characterised by uneven and combined development. It is combined in that it is closely related to development in the core with the predominant part of assembly production being controlled by large foreign transnational corporations, either directly or indirectly. And it is uneven in that the gap between China and industrialised countries remains large and the gap between the poor and the rich, the inland areas and the coastal regions in China itself is increasing.

3. Unsurprisingly, working conditions in factories are highly exploitative, characterised by low wages, long working-hours and a lack of health and safety measures.

4. There is a close connection between the type of production, the related workers’ salaries and working conditions and corresponding industrial relations. While cheap labour assembly production is based on low wages, exploitative working conditions, a high turn-over of the workforce as well as conflictual industrial relations with high strike rates, the salaries and working conditions in the more-high value added production units especially in the area of the Yangtze River Delta are significantly better. Because production relies on more highly qualified workers and depends on continuity in employment relations, workers are treated better. Moreover, informal labour NGOs are integrated into industrial relations by employers and local government in an effort to improve the overall working environment in the factory as well as wider society. 

5. The main objective of informal labour NGOs is the right to form free trade unions and to engage in collective bargaining with employers. They do not want to return to a communist past. Although grass-root labour organisations are still under great pressure from the government, this research uncovered the strong organisational activities by grass-root labour NGOs to enhance workers’ collective bargaining power and to strengthen workers’ understanding of industrial relations based on negotiations between employers and trade unions.

Chinese factory workers, Photo by flickr.Marcus

6. Unsurprisingly, Chinese workers’ strikes are not only driven by economic interests. They are increasingly demanding more general workers’ rights such as the right to form free trade unions outside the government controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU);

7. It is noticeable that the younger generation of Chinese workers is more assertive and proactive than the older one. Born after the 1980s, this younger generation now forms the core of the Chinese workforce. It is better connected through the new means of social media and more confident at demanding a decent working environment.

8. Although China has not joined the ILO, a network of regional workers/labour scholars has gradually been established. They have increasingly interacted across different and areas including, for example, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Several informal workshops of this network have been part of this research project.

Overall, the role of Chinese workers within the Chinese form of state as well as the global political economy is still in the making. The outcome of these struggles is not only relevant for China, but also the wider world.

This post was first published on the blog Chinese labour in the global economy on 24 December 2014.

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