Shifting Narratives of Chinese Labour: An Interview with Anita Chan

The following interview was conducted by Ivan Franceschini, a doctoral candidate at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice.—The Editors


Anita Chan

The issue of labour conditions in Chinese factories has previously featured in The China Story. In the Labour’ entry in The China Story Lexicon, we have noted how, over recent years, there has been a shift in the narrative related to Chinese labour: the long-term focus on labour conditions and exploitation has gradually been replaced by a new emphasis on worker activism and awareness. To gain a better understanding of these dynamics, I interviewed Professor Anita Chan of the China Research Centre of the University of Technology, Sydney, and Visiting Fellow, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU, Canberra.Ivan Franceschini


Q: In the past few years, a heated debate about labour policies has taken place in China. In particular, much has been written and said about the 2008 Labour Contract Law. Do you think that this Law has had any significant impact on labour conditions in China?

A: The 2008 Labour Contract Law has been very controversial. The Law has the potential to favour better labour conditions and provides workers with avenues for redress against violations – as demonstrated by the increased number of litigations following its enactment in 2008. However, as with any other law, employers may easily find ways to bypass it or avoid it altogether. To bypass the law, in the past few years employers started hiring agency workers in order to avoid any direct contractual responsibility. In these circumstances, the agencies are supposed to be responsible for the workers, keeping a high degree of flexibility and discretion. Another new development is the fact that many companies started employing student interns who may work for Chinese factories for up to one year. In theory, interns are supposed to gain working experience and new skills, but in reality internships are often an easy excuse adopted by employers to find cheap, and even bonded- labour because the interns are students sent by their schools, which do not allow them to graduate if they do not serve out their term in the factories. Overall, the main problems the 2008 Law has generated relate to are the labour-dispatch system and student interns. In my view, these are issues the seriousness of which should not be underestimated.

In the wake of the Honda strike during the spring of 2010, the Chinese and international media speculated about a so-called ‘awakening’ among Chinese workers, especially young migrant workers. What is your opinion about the legal awareness and class-consciousness of the new generation of workers? Do you think that the Honda strike marked a turning point of some sort?

The cover of ‘Nanfeng Chuang’ (16 June 2010) which appeared in the wake of the Honda strike

I don’t think that the Honda strike represents a real turning point. Perhaps those who think that it does subscribe to the official view that this was a serious strike that had gotten out of hand, and that the government was forced to adopt new policies to contain such actions. The strategy that the government has come up with is dubbed ‘collective consultation’, a Chinese version of ‘collective bargaining’ that is regarded as non-adversarial. The aim of this approach is to establish a ‘win-win situation’ for both parties. But this new policy does not give workers any greater say in the workplace or increased representation. As we know, collective bargaining cannot really take place unless workers are given a say in the bargaining process itself – an issue about which the government has been silent.

I don’t think that migrant workers have a very strong class-consciousness, at least not at present. In fact, among workers legal consciousness can potentially hinder the development of class-consciousness. The government has been very successful in promoting legal awareness through the educational system and other channels; as a result, workers ended up believing in it. They think that the written law is the norm and they feel satisfied as long as employers abide by it. This way, workers don’t ask for anything beyond what is stipulated by the law and, if they are aware that their rights have been violated, they only seek compensation within the parameters stipulated by state legislation. I think that this kind of legal consciousness, though a step in the right direction, represents a significant constraint and mitigates against the development of a class-consciousness.

Besides the exceptional media coverage of the Honda strike, in the last few years the Chinese and international media have paid almost obsessive attention to the issue of the labour conditions in Foxconn factories. What do you think of this narrow focus?

The scale of it is so great; I mean, size really matters. Foxconn is the largest electronics producer in the world. It employs over a million people in China and a considerable number internationally. Such a scale means that it attracts a lot of attention, which, on the positive side, obliges Foxconn to set some standards for its workers. Of course, in terms of supplier factories in China, the conditions at Foxconn are not the worst. And yet, even if Foxconn looks very modern when compared with other Chinese companies, in terms of working conditions, I’d say that overall it is still a sweatshop. On the production line, time is calculated very precisely. Each movement is timed by the minute or down to the second. Other industry suppliers cannot do that, simply because this requires highly developed managerial technology that they cannot afford.

Why do workers still go to Foxconn despite its bad reputation? I believe that it is because they know that Foxconn pays wages on time. While this may appear to be a crude view, workers at Foxconn often come from smaller companies where they have been cheated, are underpaid, or even owed wages. In this context, they know that Foxconn is synonymous with an assured income. Because wages are so low, in order to increase them, Foxconn very often offers overtime. This is another grim problem: workers do not understand that to increase their income they should be struggling for higher wages rather than offering themselves up to work overtime. So, when Foxconn makes overtime mandatory they willing comply until they get totally exhausted and cannot tolerate the long work hours anymore. Their solution then is to quit. That is why the turnover rate is so high. This is a clear indication that workers’ consciousness is not very highly developed. In comparison, many years ago, workers in England and Europe fought for shorter working hours and higher pay.

In the wake of the new labour legislation and the various developments (real or supposed) of the Chinese labour movement, much has been written about a new wave of capital de-localization, with more and more companies eager to move away from China to the neighbouring countries, especially Vietnam. Your last book, Labour in Vietnam, is about labour issues in that country. What emerges from a comparison between China and Vietnam?

First of all, Vietnam is a poor country; the cost of living is lower than China and wages are about half as high. However, in the past five years, the Vietnamese rate of inflation has been extremely high, the highest in Asia, about twenty to thirty percent increase annual, and, exactly for this reason, the Vietnamese government started raising the minimum wage. But, since inflation was out of control, wages could not keep up. As a consequence, in the past five or six years there have been many strikes in Vietnam, peaking in 2008 and in 2011 when almost one thousand strikes were officially reported. Contrary to what happens in China, the Vietnamese government keeps better records of strikes and announces them in the press.

The media in Vietnam is very different that of China. In Vietnam, the various governmental offices openly offer their opinions. For instance, the Vietnamese trade union recently advocated a huge raise in the minimum wage as a response to the high inflation rate, while the Ministry of Labour argued for an increase of the workers’ wages by collective bargaining which puts on the responsibility on trade unions to negotiate for higher wages, rather than merely by raising the official minimum wage sanctioned by the government. To make the debate even more intense and lively, various city-level governments intervened. They have reasoned that many workers strike because foreign enterprises don’t pay their employees according to national wage laws. Well, I have never heard of the Chinese government or even Chinese trade unions arguing publicly in favour of foreign capital increasing workers’ wages. At best they criticize employers for not paying up to the legal minimum wage.