Labor Standards and Human Rights: The Case of Chinese Workers Under Market Socialism
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Labor Standards and Human Rights:
The Case of Chinese Workers Under Market Socialism*

I. Introduction

The world has been awed by China’s rapid economic development, labeling it “the latest Asian miracle.” Some writers predict it will be the world’s biggest economy in the next century. 1 However, they generally do not mention that millions of ordinary people, mostly workers and peasants, will not be able to take advantage of this economic boom. The problem goes beyond workers not getting their share of the pie. Arguably more troubling is the fact that the fundamental labor rights of increasing numbers of workers are being seriously violated, in breach of the People’s Republic of China’s first-ever Labor Law of early 1995. 2 [End Page 886]

Human rights literature usually does not mention labor rights or, if a link is drawn on paper, the reference is normally to “labor rights and human rights”—the underlying assumption being that labor rights are not subsumed under human rights. Evidence is presented in this article to show that labor rights are indeed a form of human rights 3 and that more specific labor standards need to be created to ensure these rights. When reading the following description of Chinese labor conditions, it should be kept in mind that China is just one of many countries where workers’ rights are subject to widespread abuse—and China is not the worst.

This discussion is based on the cumulative knowledge gained from half a decade of research on industrial relations in China. The project has involved extensive Chinese-language documentary research, annual trips to China to visit factories, formal and informal interviews with dozens of officials, managers, and workers, and a 1996 survey of 1,531 staff and workers in fifty factories located in five cities throughout China. 4

II. Violations of Chinese Workers’ Labor Rights

The author’s research shows that many of the tens of millions of workers who work outside of China’s state-owned industrial sector are the victims of labor rights violations. Many of them are “migrant workers” from the countryside, who labor in the so-called township and village enterprises as well as the foreign-funded enterprises. 5 They number about 144 million, 6 [End Page 887] forming a category as large as the urban state-enterprize workforce and the urban collective workers combined. They constitute China’s peripheral flexible workforce in the new free labor market that has so often been hailed as the cornerstone of China’s economic success.

The following letter, co-signed by more than twenty workers and sent to the official trade union newspaper editor in 1995, illustrates violations of Chinese workers’ rights:

Dear Comrade Editor:

We are staff and workers of Guangdong’s Zhaojie Footwear Company. The company docks our pay, deducts and keeps our deposits, beats, abuses, and humiliates us at will.

Zhaojie Company is a joint venture. It sends people to Sichuan, Henan, and Hunan Provinces to recruit workers. Even children under 16 are their targets.

Those of us who came from outside the province only knew we had been cheated after getting here. The reality is completely different from what we were told by the recruiter. Now even though we want to leave, we cannot because they would not give us back our deposit and our temporary residential permit, and have not been giving us our wages. This footwear company has hired over one hundred live-in security guards, and has even set up teams to patrol the factory. The staff and workers could not escape even if they had wings. The only way to get out of the factory grounds is to persuade the officer in charge of issuing leave permits to let you go. A Henan worker wanted to resign but was not allowed to by the officer. So he climbed over the wall to escape, but was crushed to death by a passing train. Although it means forfeiting the deposit and wages and losing their temporary residential permits, each year about 1,000 workers somehow leave this place.

Being beaten and abused are everyday occurrences, and other punishments include being made to stand on...