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[Shi Tao] [Chen Guangcheng]
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Although progress has been made on paper in enacting more legal protections for workers, the government continues to deny fundamental rights such as the right to organize independent unions and the right to strike.

On this page:
Overview: Workers' Rights in 'Harmonious Society'?

While the Chinese government touts its goal of creating a "harmonious society," it has failed to protect internationally recognized workers' rights, both in law and in practice, and continues to allow gross violations of workers' human rights. Several recent high-profile incidents have underscored inhumane conditions and weak protections for workers in certain sectors of the economy in China. In June 2007, an extensive network of illegal brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces was found to employ kidnapped slave labor. Although progress has been made on paper in enacting more legal protections for workers, the government continues to deny fundamental rights such as the right to organize independent unions and the right to strike. Abuses range from forced labor and child labor to violations of health and safety standards and the non-payment of back wages and unemployment benefits.

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Challenges Facing Workers

In this section:
Keeping it Secret

The state secrets framework enables the control of information on labor by classifying news and statistics and blocking the free flow of information. There are two primary state secrets regulations relating to labor: the Regulation on State Secrets and the Specific Scope of Each Level of Secrets in Labor and Social Security Work,[1] issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, and the Regulation on State Secrets and the Specific Scope of Each Level of Secrets in Trade Union Work,[2] issued by the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Information and statistics on the following items are considered state secrets: workers' protests and labor unrest; industrial accidents and occupational illnesses; unemployment and wages; child labor; embezzlement of social insurance funds; relations with labor organizations; and labor policymaking.
Information and statistics on the following items are considered state secrets: workers' protests and labor unrest; industrial accidents and occupational illnesses; unemployment and wages; child labor; embezzlement of social insurance funds; relations with labor organizations; and labor policymaking.

Work Safety

Over the past several years the Chinese government enhanced efforts to enforce work-safety laws by conducting national inspections, promoting accident prevention, enforcing the closure of small, illegal mines, and actively seeking international cooperation.[3] However, industrial injuries and deaths remain widespread in China. The State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) reported in 2006 that over 700,000 workers become physically handicapped every year following industrial accidents.[4] It said that 60 percent of enterprises fail to provide necessary protective equipment for their workers,[5] and that the frequency of industrial accidents is on the rise as long hours and dangerous working conditions take their toll.[6]
Industrial injuries and deaths remain widespread in China

China's coal-mining industry is regarded as the most dangerous in the world, plagued by high accident and death rates. Without independent workers' organizations, miners are limited in their ability to promote safer working conditions. Occupational diseases are also of serious concern in China, where by the end of 2005, there were 665,043 reported cases of occupational illness, including 606,891 cases of pneumoconiosis[7] (also known as "black lung disease"), resulting from exposure to toxic particles. While 2007 regulations require the punishment of individuals who cover up or delay reporting work safety accidents, implementation and enforcement remain uneven.

Migrant Workers Less Protected

Despite some attempts to improve the situation, the government has consistently failed to provide for basic worker rights and benefits, including prompt payment of wages and salary, reasonable working hours, retirement pensions, compensation for illness or occupational injuries, unemployment compensation, and maternity leave. Even with calls to guarantee minimum wages for workers, illegal labor activities remain common.

Back wages and long working hours are a particular problem, especially for migrant workers. Government efforts have helped chip away at the amount of outstanding unpaid wages due these workers, but progress in this area remains limited. Workers who try to recover lost wages through legal complaints face prohibitive expenses and have a limited chance of success.
They face excessively long hours, without a guaranteed right to rest...

Illegal and improperly compensated overtime and denial of legally-guaranteed job benefits have also triggered disputes. While China's Labor Law mandates a maximum working day of eight hours, compliance is often weak and workers can be subjected to forced overtime of more than 16 hours a day.[8] Gaps in social security and labor insurance coverage are widespread. Women workers face even more obstacles as employers withhold maternity leave and related benefits.

Chinese migrants also face formidable restrictions on the exercise of their labor rights as employers exploit their status to deny them fair working conditions. They face excessively long hours, without a guaranteed right to rest, and their wages are low and very often not paid on time. Their workplaces lack the most basic protections. They are unable to exercise rights and access services on a par with permanent urban residents. Although the central government has enacted a series of decrees to ease restrictions for migrant workers, these measures are not implemented consistently at the local level.[9]

Forced Labor and Child Labor

The persistent problem of forced labor surfaced again in April 2008, when the government acknowledged it was investigating more than 3,000 enterprises suspected of links to the kidnapping and sale of children for work under slave-like conditions in factories making consumer goods for export. The official state news agency Xinhua said the authorities were looking into reports that hundreds of children from impoverished parts of Sichuan Province, many of them between the ages of 13 and 15, had been forced into captive labor in Guangdong Province, a booming manufacturing area. Days after the investigation was disclosed, police said they had rescued more than 100 children.
Information and data on child labor is classified by the Chinese government as 'highly secret.'

The discovery of the child labor ring marked the second time in a year that widespread public attention was focused on the issue of forced labor. In June 2007, the issue of forced labor was highlighted by the discovery of a massive network of forced labor in brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan provinces. People forced to work in the kilns included children and mentally-challenged adults either lured through promises of high salaries or kidnapped and sold to the kilns where they were beaten, denied food and forced to work up to 20 hours per day.[10] The case gained widespread attention when a group of 400 fathers in Henan posted a letter on the Internet saying their children had been kidnapped to work in illegal Shanxi brick kilns and that police were not responsive to requests for help. Officials provided numbers regarding how many children were actually found working in the brickyards, but these numbers were then changed and changed again. As a result, it is difficult to determine how many children worked at the brickyards, just as it is impossible to learn how many working children there are in China today. This is in large part because information and data on child labor is classified by the Chinese government as "highly secret."
Child labor remains a persistent problem within China.

It is well known, however, that child labor remains a persistent problem within China, despite measures to prohibit the practice. Article 13 of the Regulations Prohibiting the Use of Child Labor stipulates that minors may be employed only under special circumstances, such as in sports or in the arts, or if their "occupational training" and "educational labour" does not adversely affect their personal health and safety.[11] The regulations do not, however, provide a clear definition of the acceptable types of work, and this omission has created a loophole for abuse by both employers and schools.[12] China has ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention,[13] which in Article 6 permits vocational education for underage minors only where it is an "integral part" of a course of study or training course, and the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,[14] which in Article 3 obligates state parties to eliminate the "worst forms of child labor," including "forced or compulsory labor."

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Workers' Rights: Legal Obligations

In this section:
International Human Rights Conventions

The Chinese government is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees the rights of workers to strike and organize independent unions, the rights of trade unions to function freely and establish national federations or confederations, and the right of the latter to form or join international trade union organizations. In ratifying the ICESCR, the PRC government insisted on a reservation to Article 8(1)(a), which article guarantees workers the right to form free trade unions. The government asserts that application of the article should be consistent with Chinese law, which does not allow for the creation of independent trade unions. In reviewing China's implementation of the ICESCR in 2005, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recommended that China withdraw this reservation.

China is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the rights to freedom of association and to form and join trade unions. Although China has yet to ratify the ICCPR, it signed the convention in 1998 and is therefore obligated not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.

International Labor Organization Conventions

China's labor practices contravene its obligations as a member of the ILO to respect a basic set of internationally recognized labor rights for workers, including freedom of association and the "effective recognition" of the right to collective bargaining. China is also a permanent member of the ILO's governing body. The ILO's 1998 Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998 Declaration) commits ILO members "to respect, to promote and to realize" these fundamental rights based on "the very fact of [ILO] membership."

The ILO's eight core conventions articulate the scope of workers' rights and principles enumerated in the 1998 Declaration. Each member is committed to respect the fundamental right or principle addressed in each core convention, even if that member state has not ratified the convention. China has ratified four of the eight ILO core conventions, including the two core conventions on the abolition of child labor (No. 138 and No. 182) and the two core conventions on non-discrimination in employment and occupation (ILO Equal Remuneration Convention[15] and ILO Discrimination in Employment and Occupation Convention).[16] However, China has not yet ratified the other four core conventions, namely, the ILO Forced Labour Convention,[17] the ILO Abolition of Forced Labor Convention,[18] the ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention,[19] and the ILO Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention.[20]

Domestic Laws

The Labor Law incorporates numerous obligations, including equal pay for equal work, collective contracts, a social insurance system, and a special protection for women workers and underage workers. Overall implementation of the law, however, has fallen short. While the Labor Law protects workers, it also safeguards a labor system that suits the socialist market economy and promotes economic development, which can conflict directly with the rights and interests of workers.

The Labor Contract Law, which took effect in January 2008, attempts to codify a series of protections for worker rights, but does not include adequate provisions to guarantee equal bargaining power between workers and employers. It also entrenches the role of China's only legal union, the Party-controlled ACFTU, in contract negotiations.[21]

The Employment Promotion Law, which also took effect in January 2008, seeks to promote employment and eliminate discrimination against job seekers on the grounds of differences such as ethnicity, race, gender, and religion, in addition to disability and health status.

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Trade Unions: Lack of Representation

China only allows for one trade union nationwide.

While guaranteeing the rights of workers to join a trade union, China only allows for one trade union nationwide. The ACFTU is China's only official trade union, and remains an arm of the government and a subsidiary organ of the Chinese Communist Party. The Trade Union Law, first promulgated in 1992 and amended in 2001, allows unions to be established at different levels, including the county and the enterprise, but clearly states that the ACFTU shall be the unified national organization and that all unions must be registered with the ACFTU to lawfully exist. The labor union's main role thus appears to be to protect the system rather than safeguard workers' rights. Any worker-initiated organization is suspect and usually suppressed. Workers are rarely able to actually organize a branch union of the ACFTU. Even when they are successful, the organizations must have Party involvement, without which they will be denied registration. The ACFTU does not aid workers who organize strikes or demonstrations, and at times collaborates in suppressing labor unrest. Crackdowns on labor activists are common practice in China.
The labor union's main role thus appears to be to protect the system rather than safeguard workers' rights.

Codes of Conduct

Multinational corporations introduced codes of conduct in China in the 1990s due to increasing consumer awareness of social responsibility and anti-sweatshop campaigns in developing countries. This growing awareness stemmed in part from a 1992 Washington Post report that Chinese prisoners were producing Levi's jeans. Recent cases of foreign firms such as Wal-Mart and KFC being accused of poor labor standards illustrate that codes of conduct are not sufficient to protect labor rights alone.

Unions and Foreign Firms

Until 2005, most multinational corporations prevented workers from forming unions in their China factories. The ACFTU launched a nationwide campaign in 2006 with the ambitious goal of unionizing 80 percent of foreign firms by the end of 2007. Many labor experts, however, note that the ACFTU is simply a part of the Chinese government and that these newly created branches will be unable to effectively promote workers' rights in the short-term.

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HRIC's Advocacy and Media Work on Labor Rights
Below is a listing of HRIC advocacy and media work, including press statements, reports, and articles. To subscribe to HRIC's press list, please e-mail communications@hrichina.org with "SUBSCRIBE" as the subject heading.
  • Action Bulletins and Articles
    • Action Bulletin: Shanxi Slave Labor Case (June 28, 2007)

    • "The Accidental Spokesman for China's Workers," by Hu Ping (China Rights Forum, No.1 2007) - While outside observers evaluate China's development into an economic power, an ordinary worker trenchantly analyses China's rise on the backs of its beleaguered workforce. He further argues that the cheap labor that fuels China's competitiveness is as limited as its similarly over-exploited natural resources.

    • Labor and State Secrets, by HRIC and CLB (China Rights Forum, No.3 2004) - HRIC and China Labour Bulletin examine how state secrets legislation is used to conceal the plight of China's workers, and prevents effective addressing of core problems.

    • Chinese Labor Through the Eyes of the Chinese Media, by Hu Ping (China Rights Forum, No.3 2004) - Hu Ping observes that Chinese workers are becoming more aware of their rights as the government's control over information about labor conditions is gradually eroded.

  • "Human Rights for the Millions," China Rights Forum, No.3 2004. The full issue includes articles on why the rights of Chinese workers are of vital interest to the rest of the world, labor mediation, and more.





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    China Labour Bulletin's Advocacy and Media Work on Labor Rights
    China Labour Bulletin is a Hong Kong-based organization that seeks to defend and promote workers' rights in the People's Republic of China. Human Rights in China works closely with China Labour Bulletin on many labor cases, including that of Yao Fuxin.

    //

    ENDNOTES

    [1] Regulation on the State Secrets and the Specific Scope of Each Level of Secrets in Labor and Social Security Work [劳动和社会保障工作中国家秘密及其密级具体范围的规定], promulgated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MLSS) and the State Secrets Protection Bureau, January 27, 2000. http://www.law999.net/doc/law/c004/2000/01/27/00010778.html.

    [2] Regulation on State Secrets and the Specific Scope of Each Level of Secrets in Trade Union Work [工会工作中国家秘密及其密级具体范围的规定], promulgated by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the State Secrets Protection Bureau, May 27, 1996. http://zzb.jnu.edu.cn/show.asp?ArticleID=346.

    [3] Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2007, p.68, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

    [4] "Workers Exposed to Operational Risks Have the Right to Refuse Working in Dangerous Environments; Three Departments Begin a Campaign to Promote Health and Safety for Migrant Workers" [企业强令冒险作业 工人有权拒绝 三部门启动“关爱农民工生命安全与健康特别行动], China Youth Daily, June 14, 2006, http://zqb.cyol.com/content/2006-06/14/content_1416436.htm.

    [5] "Workers Exposed to Operational Risks Have the Right to Refuse Working in Dangerous Environments; Three Departments Begin a Campaign to Promote Health and Safety for Migrant Workers" [企业强令冒险作业 工人有权拒绝 三部门启动“关爱农民工生命安全与健康特别行动], China Youth Daily, June 14, 2006, http://zqb.cyol.com/content/2006-06/14/content_1416436.htm

    [6] Chow Chung-Yan, "Guangzhou Factory Is Abusing Workers," South China Morning Post, February 5, 2007.

    [7] "Workers at greater risk of illness", Xinhua News Agency, July 17, 2006, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2006-07/17/content_642068_2.htm.

    [8] Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2007, p.66-67, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

    [9] Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2007, p.69, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

    [10] Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2007, p.71-72, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

    [11] Provisions on Prohibition of Child Labour [禁止使用童工规定], issued by the State Council [国务院], promulgated October 1, 2002, and effective December 1, 2002. http://www.gov.cn/english/laws/2005-07/25/content_16967.htm.

    [12] China Labour Bulletin, Small Hands: A Survey Report on Child Labour in China (Hong Kong: China Labour Bulletin, 2007), 8, http://www.clb.org.hk/en/files/share/File/general/Child_labour_report_1.pdf.

    [13] International Labour Organization C138 Minimum Age Convention, entered into force June 19, 1976 (PRC ratified April 28, 1999) , http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C138.

    [14] International Labour Organization C182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, entered into force November 19, 2000 (PRC ratified August 8, 2002), http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C182.

    [15] International Labour Organization C100 Equal Remuneration Convention, entered into force May 23, 1953 (PRC ratified November 2, 1990), http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C100.

    [16] International Labour Organization C111 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, entered into force June 15, 1960 (PRC ratified January 12, 2006), http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C111.

    [17] International Labour Organization C29 Forced Labour Convention, entered into force May 1, 1932, http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C029.

    [18] International Labour Organization C105 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, entered into force January 15, 1959, http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C105.

    [19] International Labour Organization C87 Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, entered into force July 4, 1950, http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C087

    [20] International Labour Organization C98 Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention Convention, entered into force July 18, 1951, http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/cgi-lex/convde.pl?C098

    [21] Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Annual Report 2007, p.56, http://www.cecc.gov/pages/annualRpt/annualRpt07/CECCannRpt2007.pdf.

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