April 19, 2005

Scholars Talk About China Labor Market

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Three esteemed panelists spoke last night to an audience of over 100 in a discussion titled “Labor, Business and Human Rights in China” as part of the Global Speakers Series hosted by the ILR International Program.

Prof. Michael Santoro, business, Rutgers University, was the first to speak, sharing his observations of the current labor and political situation in China and making predictions as to how quickly such situations will change. Despite the several thousand years of history in China, he said, changes in the social, cultural and political atmosphere, will happen very quickly.

“The contradictions between state and civil society cannot persist indefinitely,” he added. “They need to get through … the bottleneck of political change.”

In his presentation, he argued that certain characteristics of good management in labor relations could be implemented to move toward such change, such as free-flowing information, non-hierarchical decision-making. Santoro added that people needed to work for self-interest, which would bring the beneficial competitive edge.

The brand of capitalism that will emerge in China will have distinct “Chinese characteristics,” he said.

Anita Chan, a sociologist who has been studying the labor market in China for 15 years, continued the discussion with particular emphasis on corporate social responsibility and its impact on Chinese workers.

She said that, despite the improving trend of corporate social responsibility, labor standards have not risen along with it. In the past decade, she said, even with massive exposure of the horrifying conditions of workers in the media, the proposed changes made by corporations remained ineffective.

In fact, she added, according to a government research report, migrant workers’ wages have gone up a mere eight dollars in the past 12 years.

“I’m talking about the irony of workers’ rights awareness rising in south China due to corporate social responsibility,” Chan said.

She also observed the general public in China disliked the idea of corporate social responsibility, denouncing it as protectionist, though the Chinese government remained silent on the topic.

The last panelist to speak was Li Qiang, the founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, an activist group dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights awareness. Li chose to focus on the foreign investment enterprises based along the eastern coast of China, where he, as a laborer, observed first-hand the inequality between the laborers’ rights and those of the managers.

Workers in these corporations, Li said through a translator, worked on average for 14 hours per day, seven days a week, and about 30 cents an hour. One of the largest problems, he added, was that labor laws were not enforced.

“[China] has a law that says they can work a [maximum] of 40 hours a week … but when the workers work over 200 hours of overtime a month, the labor law becomes useless,” he said.

Li cited one of many equally abhorrent instances where factory workers were arrested for protesting unjust policy, but the factory owner, Nike, claimed that the workers had abused the manager and thus the situation warranted the arrests.

“Until a critical mass of people cares, these corporations can’t survive,” Santoro said. “They are not capable of engaging in competition with companies that will not engage in social responsibility, until the consumer begins to demand it. Not just one or two consumers, but many consumers.”

Although the discussion lasted over two hours, attendees still had many questions for the panelists by the end of the event.

Prof. Maria Cook, industrial and labor relations and coordinator of the event, thought the discussion went well, despite many unanswered questions.

“We didn’t know whether we would get many people … [but] we filled up the room. There was a real mix of people from departments across campus, people who were knowledgeable about China, people who didn’t know very much, people from the community … That’s exactly the audience we were aiming at,” Cook said. “There was a lot of interest in the issues and the panelists raised a lot of questions that we’ll just have to continue discussing.”

Archived article by Julie Geng
Sun Senior Writer