Sunday, 25 February 2018
Where are the workers? Communnique 2 from Marc Young, TorontotheBetter's correspondent in Shanghai, China - Feb.22,2018]
What first struck me about east-coast, urban China was the general gleam of things. Shanghai looks rich. I am not referring to my glimpse of this or that wealthy businessman or well-connected cadre out on the town in an especially flashy car, engaging in stunning acts of consumption – although such sights can be had. I am talking about general prosperity. For the westerner not initially sure of what to expect, this part of China, at least, impresses right away with its first-rate public transportation systems, shining skyline and ubiquitous shopping, dining, cultural and sporting opportunities. The material well-being of its citizenry is obvious.
In other words, to deny that the country's enormous development over the past forty or so years has had strong egalitarian impulses and results is to lie. When Deng Xiaoping and the Party implemented market reforms and declared, all those years ago, that some individuals and regions in China would have to get rich first so that others could get rich later, they were not, I suggest, being cynical. Or kidding. This was obviously a serious program.
Today, comparative strolls through the streets of downtown Toronto and Shanghai reveal far more desperate, homeless, and poorly clothed individuals in one place than in the other. And the city with more visibly destitute men and women ain't the Asian one! Nor is it true that panhandlers are seemingly scarcer in Chinese cities simply because the police move them on, though this may sometimes happen. Those that I have seen have not been shy in advertising their need, nor have they felt obliged to quickly abandon their spot on the pavement.
By this I don't mean that the Chinese Communist Party has built a bank of social services that is the envy of the First World. Indeed, some of the causes of less extreme poverty in urban China are conservative ones: specifically, the extended family remains strong and offers a significant safety net for individuals who otherwise would hit the ground. Certainly it is not difficult to also find grim hostel accommodations often serving migrants who come to Shanghai (and other urban centres) in search of work. And of course readers may know about recent mass expulsions of mostly migrant labourers from overcrowded tenements in Beijing after fire broke out there. Yet scenes so common to forgotten, downtown neighbourhoods of North America and Africa of idle men (and fewer women), hopeless and visibly angry, are not to be found. Or I have not found them. Shanghai's urban poor are working, most of them. They are too occupied to loiter. In the “visual impressions test,” the commercial and financial capital of socialism-with-Chinese characteristics does pretty well against polite, rich, and often heartless Toronto the Good.
But here's my segue. Employment does not necessarily mean contentment, as we all know. A living standard higher than one's parents does not necessarily produce bliss. And on this front, the official rhetoric of Party and State about “harmonious” socioeconomic development in China runs up against the reality of a population increasingly willing to express its displeasure, when displeasure it feels. And the Chinese workplace can be a generator of discontent.
Though available statistics are almost certainly not 100 per cent accurate, data from organizations that monitor labour issues in the country suggest that work stoppages and work-related protests have been increasing since well-publicized industrial actions rocked Honda facilities in Guangdong province some eight years ago. In both 2015 and 2016, for example, the number of documented strikes across the country reportedly approached 3,000. In 2014 there had taken place an epic struggle involving over 50,000 workers in various shoe factories at Yue Yuan Industrial Holdings, a Taiwanese employer, in Dongguan, as workers took to the streets to protest company failure to make legally required contributions to the social insurance fund. In the same year in Guangzhou some 2,500 workers at Lide Shoes also struck following a relocation announcement by the employer – and reported attempts to force workers to sign poorer contracts. 2015 saw 5,000 workers at Stella Shoe Co. leave the factory over company failure to make housing fund payments; this also occurred in Dongguan.
According to China Business Review, by 2016 the incidents of unrest in the retail and service sectors were overtaking those in manufacturing. Strikes at Walmart outlets were noteworthy as the retail giant sought to impose draconian scheduling 'flexibility' measures on workers accustomed to steady shifts of sensibly limited duration.
My own direct exploration of labour relations and practices in Shanghai have, out of a very small sample, revealed employers who fail to pay workers for months at a time due to declared cash-flow issues and others who effectively ignore obligations to consult before introducing significant changes in the workplace. So what's exceptional about that, one might ask? Employers that don't abide by laws that are supposed to govern their behaviour? Not only in China, of course.
But what is the government's response to social tensions across sectors and regions? Its priority can be summed up in the official affection for the term “harmonious development,” as mentioned above. Communist officials know perfectly well that their development strategy cannot proceed without episodes of class friction. Although Beijing wants to shift the axis of its economy from low wage manufacturing to high value-added, tech-driven production and services, such a transition cannot be achieved overnight. Nor, as those in the west well know, does this model bring high wages for all – except in its fictional form. 'Mature' information and service-driven economies of course provide high-paying salaries to numerous highly-trained experts and technicians – while they leave many toiling in poorly remunerated clothing store, fast food and hospitality/tourism positions. Or plain unemployed.
Party and government officials are too smart to think that workers will be “harmonious” simply if they hear enough propaganda. What those who govern would like is for discontent to be nipped in the bud and channelled by a somewhat more effective All China Federation of Trade Unions, the country's only legal labour body. Laws to encourage collective agreements are on the books. Legally speaking, if the majority of workers in a workplace express a desire to open negotiations, an employer is generally obliged to engage. Many in the Communist Party, high and low, would be delighted if the ACFTU were to acquire a greater knack for funnelling shop and office-floor frustration into negotiations that produced collective agreements and averted unrest. The State has declared its desire that 90 per cent of the workforce be unionized.
But workers have little confidence in a “labour organization” notable for not acting in their interests. In my own brief, first-hand experience of Chinese industrial relations, I have dared to suggest to colleagues that they raise an issue with our labour union. My status as a naive foreigner is the only reason they deign to offer me a patient reply as to why this would be time wasted. But sometimes they also say that Chinese workers are obedient and reluctant to make a fuss. This is not really true. Or often not true.
Meanwhile, the Party shows no sign of wanting to relinquish control over its “labour movement.” For now, this seems to be a case of wanting to keep a cake and eat it too. Beijing's preference is to make the ACFTU a more credible voice for workers and keep it under Party tutelage, so that correct policy can be preached and things don't get out of hand. As they did in a country with a famous shipyard called Gdansk.
We will see how things go.