Everything Is Different, but Nothing Has Changed: The Past Decade for China’s Workers
Over the past decade, dramatic economic, social, and technological changes have affected the landscape of workers’ rights in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But what did these transformations entail for China’s workers? In a recently released report entitled ‘Reimagining Workers’ Rights in China’ (CLB 2022d), we took a worker-centred approach to answering this question through an examination of the discourse about and implementation of China’s labour policies over the four decades since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up program.
The impetus for the report was the tenth anniversary of our ‘Strike Map’, in which we have documented more than 14,000 collective actions since 2011 (CLB 2022a). We followed this in 2014 by creating a ‘Workplace Accident Map’ and, in 2020, a ‘Workers-Calls-for-Help Map’ (CLB 2022a). In addition to these data sources, our interviews with trade union officials about specific incidents included in the maps reveal systemic problems in policy implementation across regions and sectors (CLB 2022b). The stories of workers and their families we collect are often shocking, but the patterns are recurring.
Take, for example, the protracted legal dispute of the family of construction worker Zhang Jiangdong, who died in March 2013 at the age of 54 in a traffic accident on his way to work on a government project in a company-provided vehicle with colleagues (CLB 2014). At the time of writing this in 2022, the family is still fighting in the courts for compensation, which demonstrates that laws and regulations do little to protect workers, no matter how clear they are (CLB 2022d: 70–72).
‘We were asked to forfeit our right to pursue any legal action or complain to the government authorities,’ Zhang’s daughter, Zhang Lihua, told us in 2014, after the family rejected a private settlement. ‘The village party secretary threatened all our relatives … and told us he was just taking orders from the mayor.’ But this was not simply a problem of local interests. The family wanted justice and pursued civil litigation to have the tragedy recognised as a work-related accident, but every level of the court system rejected their claim. After the case went through civil litigation and mediation in 2014, the Supreme People’s Court issued a document with a series of provisions on work-related injury insurance (Supreme People’s Court 2014), which led to a reapplication of the Zhang family’s case in 2017 and again in 2018, and a retrial at the Hubei High Court in 2021. But despite the existence of laws on accident insurance and judicial instructions to ensure that workers and their families are properly compensated, the Zhang family is no closer to receiving compensation, let alone accountability.
The Zhang family’s situation is not an isolated case of official systems failing to implement policies designed to improve workers’ access to fundamental rights. Every year, the State Council issues notices on topics such as occupational health and safety and wages in arrears in the construction sector (CLB 2019a: 24–29). The notices and decrees against wage arrears—typically released just before the Lunar New Year holiday—are disregarded as no-one at the local level is willing to enforce them against construction companies, frequently leaving migrant workers desperate for their pay. After every deadly accident, local governments issue top-down directives demanding in strong language that production is halted and inspections are conducted, only to have similar accidents happen in the same jurisdiction just months later.
And, despite President Xi Jinping’s calls in 2015 for reform of China’s official trade union (Crothall 2020), the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the organisation has made some minor changes but remains largely focused on carrying out propaganda campaigns on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and spreading empty slogans to build up political loyalty for the government. In this context, workers are left behind.
One of the latest CCP slogans is ‘common prosperity’ (共同富裕), the official use of which soared in 2020 and 2021 (Bloomberg 2021). The term has its origins in 1953, long before China embarked on its path of Reform and Opening Up in the 1970s and the concept of ‘a few getting rich first’ was introduced. The term then reappeared in a 1981 plan for wealth redistribution aimed at making way for the nation’s economic development (Bandurski 2021). ‘Common prosperity’ was officially announced as the nation’s top priority by President Xi at a meeting of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs in August 2021 (Xinhua 2021), but at the annual Two Sessions in early March 2022, the term was barely mentioned (Wu 2022).
This sudden emphasis and subsequent about-face revealed the fleeting and unsubstantial nature of these policy buzzwords. When common prosperity was promoted as a priority in the second half of 2021, the authorities pressured major sources of capital to pledge billions of yuan to invest in this grand dream (Lau 2021). Giant technology companies including Alibaba, Tencent, Pinduoduo, Bytedance, and Meituan complied, with Alibaba alone pledging 100 billion yuan (Goh 2021). But there was never any plan for how the funds would be used to create greater social equity, so the noise around this campaign simply served as a distraction, not only from the lack of labour policy implementation by the authorities, but also from the failure of these companies to address the real, everyday problems faced by their workers.
Instances of these problems abound. For example, an overworked Pinduoduo employee with the surname Zhang died in Ürümqi on her way home after working past midnight in December 2020. She was only 22 years old. Just two weeks later, a Pinduoduo engineer with the surname Tan jumped to his death shortly after requesting leave. He was a recent graduate and had started at the company’s headquarters just six months previously. Both Zhang’s and Tan’s periods of employment coincided with the launch of a new Pinduoduo initiative designed to capitalise on the growing demand for online grocery delivery services in China (CLB 2021a). Pinduoduo reportedly pushed its employees to log 300 hours a month—in clear violation of China’s Labour Law. Pinduoduo’s response to the two deaths was to announce a psychological consultancy service for employees, rather than addressing their own culpability.
When a 43-year-old food delivery worker with the surname Han died from exhaustion from overwork in Beijing in December 2020, Ele.me claimed he was not its direct employee and initially offered his family just 2,000 yuan even though, before his death, Han had purchased work accident insurance through Ele.me’s app. Following a backlash on social media, Ele.me agreed to pay Han’s family the standard work-related death compensation of 600,000 yuan.
On that occasion, our organisation called the office of the Sunhe Township trade union in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, where Han had picked up his last orders. The official who answered the phone said the union had not heard about Han’s death and even doubted the veracity of the incident, despite it having made headlines at that time. ‘The more detailed the report, the more likely it is to be fake,’ the official said, before going on to say that this case was not within the union’s purview (CLB 2021d).
In response to the Sunhe union official, our organisation offered some concrete recommendations for the ACFTU to take up, including simply reaching out to delivery drivers in their districts to understand their concerns and pushing the relevant authorities to mandate employers to provide insurance for each driver. The union could also have taken it on itself to represent workers to negotiate with giant tech companies on a range of pressing needs. For instance, besides accident insurance, the ACFTU could have negotiated issues such as the dangerous traffic directions and delivery distances for orders generated by the apps’ algorithms. It also could have advocated for the hiring of additional tech workers so employees no longer have to work excessively long and deadly hours. These recommendations are in line with official policy goals, such as those expressed in the July 2021 guidelines on the platform economy of China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS 2021).
When it comes to political campaigns and signalling party loyalty, major domestic companies have framed their seemingly generous contributions as ‘donations’. This deflects from their own legal obligations to their workers. Were these tech giants to set a national example by complying with the existing labour laws and regulations and offering fairer compensation to their workers—from programmers and engineers to office cleaning staff and delivery drivers—this would be a much greater contribution to achieving the goal of ‘common prosperity’. And if the government were to ensure that both enterprises and workers could negotiate on an equal footing over working conditions, remuneration, and workplace safety, there might be more hope of China’s labour laws and policies being adequately enforced—this time, from the bottom up through union representation and collective bargaining.
Still, the ACFTU is busy focusing on other issues that look very much like another distraction from the more pressing matters that should fall under its purview. The campaign that purports to eliminate absolute poverty (精准扶贫) is one such instance. In our investigations of how local trade union officials have responded to labour incidents within their jurisdictions, we found union officials were often dispatched to rural areas to assist with poverty alleviation campaigns, including delivering cash to villagers and taking photos of themselves holding brooms as though cleaning villagers’ courtyards (CLB 2020). What if, instead of travelling to the countryside, these union officials helped the workers near their offices facing wage arrears and other chronic problems at local companies and state-owned enterprises? It is possible the rural recipients of the gifts delivered with much fanfare by the trade union representatives are the family of those same workers who are waiting for long overdue paycheques in the city (CLB 2019b).
The subject of workplace safety also sees the same type of deflections. With the 2018 State Council reshuffling, China’s State Administration of Work Safety was absorbed by the new Ministry of Emergency Management (State Council 2018), effectively treating workplace accidents as post hoc emergencies to react to rather than prevent. This shift is reflected in recent media cycles reporting workplace accidents, in which we see dramatic coverage of heroic rescue operations and praise for the authorities’ efforts, rather than questions about why the accident occurred in the first place or what proactive steps are being taken to prevent the next ‘emergency’. Local officials increasingly face consequences in the aftermath of investigations, but rather than create accountability aimed at improving workplace safety, the scapegoating is just the luck of the draw for local officials. All the while, millions of China’s workers face a daily gamble with their lives and health. When it comes to real responsibility, the ACFTU is the only entity given the right to organise workers and oversee safety matters in the workplace; but to date, union officials have never been held accountable for failing to conduct their duties under China’s Work Safety Law (Art. 24), Trade Union Law (Arts 24–25), and the ACFTU’s own charter (Art. 28).
Risking life and health is not a fair exchange for any sum of money. Within five days in early 2022, two coalmine accidents killed 22 people in Guizhou Province (CLB 2022f). Our organisation called the county, municipal, provincial, and national government bureaus responsible for occupational health and safety, asking officials in each whether the investigations of the accidents would include the official trade union. All responded that it would not, despite the union’s responsibility to represent workers in monitoring health and safety at the worksite. Government departments are not the only ones who are confused about what the law requires. Our organisation held the same conversation at all levels of the ACFTU about what the union could do in terms of accident prevention. One union official told us that laws are ‘only principles’ and enforcement depends on the local government.
In recent decades, as China strove to become the world’s manufacturer, the country’s workers have endured unsatisfactory conditions, from the low pay of sanitation workers, unpaid wages of construction workers, and lack of social security for retiring factory workers, to the occupational illness of pneumoconiosis prevalent among coalminers, and so on. Even though workers have repeatedly raised their voices over these issues, none of these problems has been solved. Instead, broad economic changes have phased out some of China’s most dangerous industries and contributed to the downturn in manufacturing (Crothall 2018). More major transformations followed the US–China trade war, which led many manufacturers to move elsewhere in Asia, while the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020 and ongoing pandemic response have created new challenges for workers.
Because of these shifts in the labour landscape, many workers have been laid off from stable employment, which provided dedicated spaces in which they worked and often even lived side-by-side in factory dormitories. They have flooded into the service sector and more flexible forms of employment that do not lend themselves as well to the possibility of strikes and organised protest. These are quickly becoming some of the most dangerous jobs, and today workers have an even more pressing need for sectoral representation to combat the ways in which capital is taking advantage of regulatory gaps.
Food delivery workers in Guangdong, for example, are employed by a tech giant headquartered in Beijing or Shanghai. They are ‘managed’ not by a human, but by an algorithm that feeds them orders, doles out penalties, and entices them with bonuses to work in bad weather, on public holidays, and for excessive hours. The structure of this ‘workplace’ does not lend itself to meeting other drivers, understanding the nuances of the algorithm, or bargaining for better protections such as accident insurance. Still, despite the changes to the nature of work and the workplace, food delivery drivers across China have found ways to connect, organise, and fight back against their conditions (CLB 2021c).
It is not just blue-collar and migrant workers who are vulnerable to consistently poor working conditions. Overwork in China’s tech industry is internationally notorious. China’s start-ups are staffed by young, college-educated workers who have little bargaining power and struggle to find the camaraderie within their small workplaces that is necessary to begin asking for change (CLB 2022c). University students and graduates feel overwhelmingly pessimistic about their future job prospects. Meanwhile, state policies are pushing young people to start families, and larger ones at that. Maternity leave has been increased, but paternity leave has not, with both bills footed by enterprises, likely giving rise to increased gender discrimination in employment (CLB 2021b).
At the Two Sessions in early March, it was apparent that delegates, including those from the ACFTU, understood the depth and breadth of the issues facing China’s workers today, and they could imagine some effective solutions to these problems (CLB 2022e). However, what is always missing from these policy discussions are the voices of workers themselves. There is no shortage of worker voices, as our mapping projects show. The ACFTU, which proffered 42 separate policy recommendations at the meetings, is mandated to represent China’s workers but has situated itself far from the reality workers face.
In the Afterword of our report, our Executive Director, Han Dongfang, writes about the political will needed to solve the fundamental problems facing workers:
No matter whether you call it ‘common prosperity’ or the ‘China Dream’, ensuring that workers and working families are treated fairly has to be the most fundamental aim for any government. In order to accomplish this goal, political and ideological arguments must be temporarily put aside, and the focus should be on how to create a better future for all. (CLB 2022d: 132)
It is confounding that the same problems have continued for years, despite high-level policies and regulations that, on paper, offer promising solutions. The problem lies not only with mechanisms to enforce labour rights and protections, but also with a system that ignores workers’ voices. It does not take a lot of creativity to reimagine the landscape for workers’ rights in China: worker participation at the enterprise level and a truly representative union to fairly monitor the enforcement of labour laws before and after violations arise. This is the only way to ensure that policy responses sent from on high land in the hands of workers as tools to protect their own rights and lives. Will the ACFTU continue to stand in the way?