Getting the Chinese to work hard

NYT has an article on American firms’ opposition to new Chinese labor laws. China has been pushing unionization of foreign firms, forcing even Wal-mart to accept unions. In particular the All Chinese Federation of Trade Unions has been trying to organize migrant workers. The basic complaint of the foreign firms is that it will be hard to get workers to work hard enough if you are forced to coddle them. The laws themselves are apparently not all that big a change, but the impression seems to be that these laws may actually be enforced. “If you really abide by the Chinese labor laws,” said Anita Chan, an expert on labor issues in this country and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, “migrant-worker wages would go up by 50 percent or more.”
Labor groups have always been fairly critical of the ACFTU, for the obvious reason that they are not going to be mistaken for the IWW any time soon. I suspect that these laws will not represent a change in the nature of Chinese unions and that these will continue to be “enterprise” unions. Probably one reason for this push for unionization is simply a desire to have more state control over things. On the other hand, state unions would not have to do much to make the situation of Chinese workers considerably better, as this interview shows

Li Qiang: How is the method to count piecework? Do you know your pay rate?
Worker: The pay rate is different for different products.
Li Qiang: Can you give me an example for the pay rate?
Worker: Such as changing color dolls…
Li Qiang: What is the brand of it?
Worker: Disney.
Li Qiang: What is the piecework rate for it?
Worker: It used to be 11.20 Yuan for 100 pieces, or 0.112 Yuan each.
Li Qiang: How many people are needed to work it out?
Worker: Eight people.
Li Qiang: That is eight people work on the doll, getting 11.20 for 100 pieces.
Worker: But the rate is lowered to 7.80 Yuan.
Li Qiang: Why?
Worker: Because some workers would get over 1000 Yuan monthly if calculated by 11.20. The factory administration lowered the pay rate to reduce cost.

So this is not really hourly work, nor is it peicework. Workers get 1000 Yuan a month period. This is exactly the type of thing unions are supposed to fight for. Not just the right to bargin for a particular wage, but the right to have a wage at all. There are all sorts of things reported in the press, late payment of wages, strange living charges etc., that add up to not just a bad deal for labor but no deal at all. Making even the most marginal effort to improve the position of workers would be popular, make the government look good, and not really cost anything. I have doubts much will happen, and no illusions that gains will happen everywhere in China, but there is at least a possibility that things will improve. If nothing else, there are limits to the number of poor workers even in China, and eventually firms are going to have to bargin with their workers. Even the most limited set of legal rights would help.

1 Comment

  1. Yeah, right…I find it hard to believe the author could honestly believe “unionizing” in China is there to help the worker. I wrote this when China’s “labor laws” mandated Wal*Mart accept a “union”.

    **************
    Wal-Mart has struck another blow in the struggle to protect its workers from the perils of democracy and self-government by joining hands with that other warrior for personal freedom, the Chinese Communist Party. For the first time in its Glorious 25 Year History, Wal-Mart is allowing its employees to join a union. After tough negotiation and the involvement of the CCP, China’s Wal-Mart employees are now able to join that country’s largest labor union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

    After years of record-breaking profits and a hugely successful defense on all fronts against unions, Wal-Mart knows the difference between friend and foe. Democrats? Foe. The Bush Boys? Friend. The Chinese Communist Party? Definitely friend! And with the ACFTU, Wal-Mart will be getting lots of the warm fuzzies when is comes to dealing with employee issues. For instance, in order to streamline employee relations, most ACFTU union representatives are also company managers (and Communist Party members); managers in ACFTU unionized shops are essentially allowed to decide for themselves if they are mistreating their work force. It’s a real world example of the sound of one hand clapping.

    But is this all bad? Won’t managers have a big-picture view that allows them to detect needless whining which causes fledgling companies like Wal-Mart so much heartbreak and might stifle China’s growth? A review of disputes settled by the Union on behalf of its members shows that in most cases the Union came down on the side of the business to the detriment of the worker, even in cases of dangerous work conditions. And since union members are, by law, not allowed to strike, the whole arrangement is carte blanche from the Wal-Mart standpoint.

    Of course, with every huge and unanswered gain comes a slight risk; no doubt Wal-Mart will be subject to periodic bouts of demonstrations for “workers rights” whenever the Party thinks such a brouhaha will strengthen their image as a free society. But still, it’s good to have the law on your side if you need to put down an insurrection.

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