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?
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.