Increased Information TransparencyThe ready-made garment (RMG) industry is a significant source of growth for Bangladesh’s rapidly developing economy. Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of garments, and the garment industry in Bangladesh employs 4.4 million workers in more than 4600 factories. However, the size and complexity of the industry leads to poor working conditions and exploitative labor practices. These practices often do not garner attention until a tragic disaster happens, like the Rana Plaza collapse. As such, there is an urgent need for increased information transparency in the garment industry in Bangladesh to improve labor rights and workplace safety for these millions of workers. The digital initiative Mapped in Bangladesh is stepping up to the challenge.

Rana Plaza: Leaving a Legacy of Responsibility

The Rana Plaza building, located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housed five garment factories that supplied American brands. Its 2013 collapse is one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, killing at least 1,1232 people and injuring 2,500 more. In the wake of the tragedy, activists and consumers worldwide demanded the codification of workplace safety standards. However, the lack of transparency surrounding which brands used the building to produce their garments concealed the companies involved. In fact, people had to dig through rubble for loose clothing labels to confirm which companies worked at Rana Plaza.

As such, the Rana Plaza collapse was an eye-opening example of how a lack of transparency costs lives. It indicated that the first step toward reforming the garment industry in Bangladesh requires greater visibility of workers and their working conditions. Although companies saw a lack of transparency in their supply chain as a competitive advantage, disclosing of supplier factory information actually drives profits. Indeed, 85% of executives from the apparel and footwear industries say that “transparency is either extremely or very important to the industries’ success.”

Consumers’ focus on ethical manufacturing has also driven this call for reform. A survey from Accenture found that when consumers’ values do not align with a company’s position on social, ethical, and environmental issues, 42% of consumers will step away from the brand. Further, 21% will never buy from that company again. In this way, transparency serves as a tool for accountability. It provides consumers with the information they need to make more informed shopping choices and demand more ethical practices. That said, the push for information transparency requires more than shifting consumer preferences.

Mapped in Bangladesh

A promising milestone for information transparency in the garment industry in Bangladesh comes from Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB). Implemented by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development at Brac University, this initiative has collected and published a comprehensive database of RMG export-oriented factories. It formats this information as an interactive, digital map reminiscent of Google Maps. The initiative came about as a pilot project in response to the Rana Plaza Collapse. As a stakeholder of the RMG industry explained, “If we had such a map during the Rana Plaza tragedy, we could have reacted more quickly.”

Syed Hasibuddin Hussain, the project manager for MiB, outlined their methodology to The Borgen Project. Despite not knowing the exact number of factories, the team determined the general industrial areas where they exist. Because single factories interact with the larger RMG system, they rarely exist in remote villages.

From there, they decided the most effective method would be a door-to-door census on the streets of the industry’s four major districts. Hussain described the process as using “the snowball effect to identify additional factories,” no matter how dispersed individual factories are within a cluster. As of August 2020, the MiB site displays complete data sets from the Dhaka, Gazipur, and Narayanganj districts. The researchers expect to add the last major district’s data in 2021.

Mapping Transparency for Consumers

The project aims to fill the absence of an authenticated and continuously updated method of tracing RMG producers. Additionally, it serves as an alternative to sources with unverified secondary information. Hussain added that MiB can authenticate some data points directly. These include factory name, address, certifications, products made, export countries and worker’s participation committees. However, it is impossible to completely validate information like the number of workers and their demographic breakdown.

MiB’s formal data validation process also involves cross-checking for consistency with both brands and other outside sources. Specifically, it verifies memberships with certain associations and again with the factory at a later date. When MiB finds contradictory information during the verification process, it flags the data. This lets the consumer make the final call for their purchases.

Some factories lie about which brands’ products they manufacture for marketing purposes, but brands themselves also challenge the data. Hussain shared, “Initially, we thought this transparency would be attacked by the local associations, but it was unexpected for us that brands would come in and falsify their reporting,” even when the factories show proof that they do manufacture said brands. These inconsistencies highlight exactly why transparency in the garment industry in Bangladesh is so important.

The Impact of COVID-19 Moving Forward

COVID-19 has hit Bangladesh’s RMG industry especially hard. At the end of April 2020, 1,149 factories reported that brands canceled orders for more than $3.16 billion worth of garments. In the wake of these economic impacts, activists are concerned that progress on worker protections and safety regulations after the Rana Plaza collapse will disappear.

In May and July of 2020, MiB surveyed export-oriented RMG factories to create a COVID-19 specific map. It found that a large part of the garment industry in Bangladesh is back in action. “It seems like things are getting normal, but one of the questions we asked is about how optimistic they are about the immediate future, and we found out that people were extremely pessimistic,” said Hussain. There is a possibility that factories are using their current capacity for orders that were initially canceled and recently reinstated.

Perhaps the pessimism also results from in the market uncertainty facing workers during the upcoming winter season. With the current quarantines in many Western markets, the RMG industry is not working on a natural order pipeline. Though factories traditionally produce knits and coats in the winter season, demand is sure to change with people staying home. With this added unpredictability for workers who already live under extreme financial uncertainty, the garment industry in Bangladesh requires increased information transparency now more than ever.

Christine Mui
Photo: Wikimedia

Poverty in Qatar
Ever since the International Federation of Association Football’s (FIFA) announcement that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, migrant flows to the country have exploded. Since 2010, Qatar has sought to bring thousands of workers to its shores in order to assist in the construction of stadiums, hotels and other infrastructure necessary to facilitate the tournament. To meet this demand, migrants from all over the Persian Gulf region, we well as South Asia, have flooded into the country. Migrants hoped to escape dire straits in order to find a stable job and a stable income. In fact, 700,000 workers came from India alone. However, migrant poverty in Qatar has become a significant issue.

Migrants in Qatar

According to Human Rights Watch, the migrant labor force has reached over 2 million, making up approximately 95% of the labor force. However, despite being the second richest country in the world with a GDP per capita of $124,500 in 2017, a lack of labor rights has created widespread poverty in Qatar, especially among migrants.

The reason poverty persists among workers is the kafala sponsorship system. Migrants have to apply for visas from employers, often incurring costs through recruiters to do so. Even if workers do manage to pay enough to get access to a job, employers have broad controls over what workers can do. Employers often take passports from workers, preventing them from escaping brutal conditions. Additionally, some workers have gone with little to no pay. This has led to hundreds of thousands of people living in labor camps, where disease and poverty are rampant.

Solutions

In 2017 and 2018, Qatar’s government passed policies intended to reduce migrant poverty in Qatar. In October 2017, the government established a temporary minimum wage for migrant workers in the hopes of improving the conditions of laborers. One year later, in October 2018, Amnesty International reported that Qatar implemented a support and insurance fund in order to protect workers from lost wages.

However, Human Rights Watch reports that both of these reforms were implemented unevenly, and thus have not had much of an effect. Employers still have a lot of control over workers, and poor enforcement has meant that the kafala structure is still in place.

On August 30, 2020, Qatar announced two new reforms in order to rectify this issue. The first was an increase in the existing minimum wage. The law will take effect in January 2021, and also requires employers to pay workers a stipend for food and housing. The second was a law to allow workers to leave their jobs without having express permission from their employers. This mobility could allow workers to escape dangerous conditions and find better work.

Such reforms could even save lives, as even the lowest estimates indicate that at least 1,200 people have died working on World Cup stadiums due to harsh conditions. International watchdogs have applauded these reforms. Amnesty International argues that these small steps provide some hope that migrant poverty in Qatar, as well as worker exploitation, will soon be on the decline.

– Thomas Gill
Photo: Flickr

Cambodian garment industryThe Cambodian economy is heavily reliant on the garment industry, and the global garment industry is heavily reliant on Cambodia. The nation accounts for 45% of employed garment manufacturers worldwide. As of 2011, the industry was responsible for 80% of Cambodia’s total exports. However, Cambodia is also infamous for its poor treatment of factory workers, particularly in the garment industry. Here are six facts to understand labor rights violations in the Cambodian garment industry. 

Facts About Labor Rights Violations in the Cambodian Garment Industry

  1. Fixed duration contracts lead to worker insecurity. Employers in the Cambodian garment industry have largely shifted from undetermined duration, or long-term, contracts to fixed-duration, or short-term, contracts. The employers said the shift was in the interest of competitive, flexible business. In reality, fixed-duration contracts have resulted in increased job insecurity, reduced enforcement of international labor laws, industrial relation breakdowns and massive strikes. 
  2. Production targets create high-pressure work environments. To meet quotas, workers are often either forced to work overtime or enticed to do so with a small bonus that is usually never paid. In addition, some workers are often too intimidated to take breaks, even to use the bathroom or drink water.   
  3. Gender discrimination is common. More than 90% of workers in the Cambodian garment industry are women, mostly from rural areas with only a primary school education. One example of gender discrimination is pregnancy-based discrimination, which is abundant in the industry. Employers are known to refuse employment to pregnant women, refuse to renew the contracts of women who become pregnant or even fire pregnant women as their due dates approach. Even if pregnant women remain employed, they receive no workplace accommodations and often have to quit due to fatigue.
  4. Factories frequently violate child labor laws. Though the minimum age requirement for employment in Cambodia is 15, many factories employ children between the ages of 12 and 14. Employers often require children to work long past their eight-hour workday maximum and pay them below minimum wage. To hide this violation, some employers tell the children to hide when visitors come to the factory.
  5. The government often busts unions. There were concentrated efforts to bust unions in at least 35 factories from 2012 to 2015. In December 2013, the Cambodian Minister of Labor introduced obstacles to union formation. The challenges included delaying union certification and giving factory management time to retaliate against union members. Similarly, poor government inspection of factories and labor law enforcement makes it nearly impossible for small unions to assert their rights. 
  6. The Cambodian Ministry of Labor is making significant changes. In January of 2019, the Ministry of Labor introduced several labor law reforms. Among these was the introduction of bimonthly salary payments and seniority payments: compulsory, periodic payments made to employees with long term contracts. The government also introduced severance payments, which require employers to pay fixed-term contract employees at the end of a contract. 

Many people in the Cambodian garment industry face labor rights violations due to a lack of enforcement of labor laws. However, the Cambodian government and international fashion retailers are taking measures to improve working conditions. These measures are the first step to creating better environments and living wages for Cambodian garment workers.

– Caroline Warrick-Schkolnik
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Labor Exploitation at Foxconn ChinaFoxconn China is a major factory town in Shenzhen, China. It is a factory town that a Taiwanese company called Foxconn created. Foxconn is one of the largest contract electronics manufacturers in the world. People commonly refer to the town as Foxconn City and it employs over 350,000 workers. Foxconn bans the outside world from entering its large factory town. Major tech companies, such as Apple, Amazon, Dell, Google and Hewlett-Packard, contracts Foxconn to produce electronics. Here is some information about the labor exploitation at Foxconn China.

Labor Exploitation at Foxconn China

In 2010, labor exploitation at Foxconn China came into the spotlight when numerous workers committed suicide by throwing themselves off their dorm buildings. Reports determined that there were 18 suicide attempts and 14 confirmed accounts of death in 2010. One might question if the working conditions changed in 2019.

Labor exploitation at Foxconn China takes on multiple forms. On a surface level, all of the line workers at Foxconn China seem to be full-time employees. What many do not know, however, is that many line workers at Foxconn China are part-time student workers. These part-time workers are usually students from Chinese trade schools who are “interning” at Foxconn’s factories. These so-called internships are usually underpaid line jobs.

These part-time student workers are in danger of labor exploitation at Foxconn China. Oftentimes, these “interns” only receive $3.15 per hour. In 2019, Amazon.com came under scrutiny for violating Chinese labor law concerning these student laborers. In China Labor Watch’s 2019 report, the organization accused Amazon’s Foxconn factory of violating the Chinese student worker laws. Because each intern worker receives a production quota, they must do overtime and night shifts, which Chinese labor law does not allow.

The Reality of Labor Exploitation

The Guardian’s 2017 report gives a glimpse into labor exploitation at Foxconn China. Suicide notes and interviews with suicide survivors reported that workers at Foxconn China experience long workdays, harsh management and minimal pay. The Guardian interviewed a young man named Xu. Xu told the Guardian that the management of Foxconn China is often harsh to its workers. According to Xu, managers of Foxconn factories often publicly humiliate workers for being slow or make promises that they will not keep. In one case, Xu stated that a manager promised to pay double for overtime hours but only gave regular pay. This kind of degradation and inhumane work hours seems to be the root cause of suicides in Foxconn.

In 2019, Apple and Foxconn came under scrutiny for breaking the Chinese labor law. China Labor Watch’s investigation revealed that, as of August 2019, 50 percent of the workers in Foxconn City were temporary workers. According to Chinese labor law, only a maximum of 10 percent of a company’s employees can be part-time workers. In addition, the Chinese Labor Watch accused Foxconn China of making its student interns and workers do overtime. Chinese labor law on student internships does not allow student interns to work overtime or night shifts. While Apple denied many of the accusations, Apple did admit that the number of part-time workers in its Foxconn facilities exceeded the Chinese labor law’s regulation.

The Future for Foxconn Workers

Li Qiang, the director of China Labor Watch, gave a piece of hopeful news in her interview with a software company called Moz. Li pointed to a couple of improvements that Apple made in regards to fostering better working conditions for its line workers. Apple started to issue reports on the state of working conditions for its factories overseas. In addition, some experts suggested that a decrease in iPhone sales might also help the Chinese line workers. Due to the falling sales numbers, Foxconn had to cut back on both employee counts and overtime hours. As a result, many manufacturing employees are quitting their jobs, which may force the factories and management to treat their next round of employees better.

It is true that Foxconn China has not made any major improvements since the 2010 suicides. However, it is clear that major companies such as Apple are making an effort to improve the lives of the Chinese line workers at Foxconn China. While these minor improvements on labor exploitation at Foxconn China might not look like enough, it is the collection of these small changes that can bring about a major change and improvement. As long as there are people who closely monitor the labor exploitation in Foxconn China, there will be future improvements for the workers in China.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

Labor reforms in Qatar
In the prelude to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar received relentless criticism on migrants’ working conditions from the international community and mass media, causing the government to transform its labor system and uphold the rights of migrant workers through sweeping reforms.

Kafala System

Qatar’s kafala system ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers by requiring them to obtain their permission (a no-objection certificate) in order to change jobs. This, in turn, gives the employer entire control over the exit visa of his employees. This sponsorship and visa system not only leads to abuses and exploitation of labor practices, including the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports, but it also prevents a local domestic labor market from operating. Thus, radical labor reforms in Qatar are necessary in order for the country to develop itself according to international standards and to modernize its economy.

Recent Reforms

One of the significant steps Qatar made in 2017 was concluding a cooperation accord with the International Labor Organization (ILO). It stated that it would set a minimum wage and promised to repeal the kafala system. Later in 2017, Qatar introduced a temporary minimum wage of 750 Qatari Rial (approximately $200) and plans on introducing a non-discriminatory minimum wage by the end of 2019, making it the first country in the Gulf region to do so. These labor reforms in Qatar will improve migrant workers’ rights significantly, which will not only increase their working conditions but also their motivation to work, resulting in a more efficient and productive economy. In addition, Law No. 13 entered into force in October 2018, stating that migrant workers would no longer need their employers’ permission to enter and exit the country. These laws contribute to transforming Qatar’s current system into a modern industrial relations system.

Ending the Kafala System

However, Qatar still has not abolished the kafala system which caused hundreds of workers to go on strike and protest in August 2019. This is barring the fact that Qatari law strictly bans joining unions and participating in strikes. Protesting workers have reported that they have not received pay for months and are not receiving their renewed working permits from their employers, making it illegal for them to stay in the country. Consequently, Qatar’s Minister of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs announced that the reform ending the Kafala system will enter into force in January 2020, facilitating the efficacy of the other recently introduced reforms as a whole.

Issue of Irregular Migration

Although positive, these reforms and Labor Laws do not cover migrant domestic workers with a local Qatari contract, meaning that the Labor Law does not protect them and they cannot seek assistance from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. By excluding migrant domestic workers, Qatar is not tackling the issue of irregular migrants and the illegality of employment, which is a major concern for the local authorities. The Sponsorship Law binds domestic migrant workers to their employers, and so, if they suffer abuse, they are likely to abscond and either seek illegal work in the country or attempt to return to their home country. An underground informal labor market developed in Qatar due to the high number of irregular workers looking for work, which is a predominant issue for the government. Indeed, one of the key objectives included in the Qatar National Vision 2030 is to develop a knowledge-based economy consisting of highly skilled people and reduce Qatar’s dependency on low-skilled foreign nationals. Therefore, the inclusion of domestic migrant workers and resolving the issue of irregular/illegal workers is essential for Qatar’s plan to become a modern economy with highly-skilled people.

The current labor reforms in Qatar are a major step towards improving the human rights of the millions of migrant workers living in the country, in addition to contributing to the development of Qatar’s fast-growing economy. Despite the implementation of these laws seeming interminable, Qatar focuses on long-lasting and profound changes in its labor market with the help and recognition of international organizations such as the ILO and the United Nations.

Andrea Duleux
Photo: Pixabay

Global Infancia

Global Infancia is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that specializes in protecting children from abuse in Paraguay. It was founded in 1995, “Global Infancia works towards creating a culture which respects the rights of children and adolescents in Paraguay.”

It has attempted to promote the human rights of children in a myriad of ways, ranging from creating a branch of the government tasked with protecting children to founding a news agency focusing on children’s rights. Global Infancia represents the blueprint for a successful NGO because of its ability to form partnerships with governments, influence local communities, and follow through with its goals.

Partnerships with Governments

Studies have estimated that roughly 60 percent of children in Paraguay have been victims of violence. Faced with this fact, Global Infancia worked with the National Secretariat for Childhood and Adolescence along with the Paraguayan Government to pass a law stating “all children and adolescents have the right to be treated properly and with respect for their physical, psychological and emotional well-being. This includes protections for their image, identity, autonomy, ideas, emotions, dignity and individual values”.

Additionally, Global Infancia spearheaded the forming of Municipal Councils for the Rights of Children and Adolescence who have become instrumental in protecting children’s rights throughout Paraguay. Global Infancia’s work is proof of how a successful NGO can form fruitful partnerships with local governments.

Integration into the Local Community

Since the end of authoritarian rule in Paraguay, it has been working to integrate itself into local communities and promote the recognition of children’s rights. In the town of Remansito, Global Infancia is providing supplementary nutrition and school support to over 1,000 children. Approximately 22 percent of Paraguayans live below the poverty line. The child labor force of participation with a rate of 25 percent, shows that the conditions for many children in Paraguay are not ideal.

However, Global Infancia recognized these problems and has created national media campaigns to raise awareness for children’s rights and used training forums around the country to educate the public that violence against children will no longer be tolerated. Finally, Global Infancia has harnessed the power of local communities by “installing an alert system which reduces the demand for childhood labor”. These actions illustrate how a successful NGO employs the power of the communities they are working in.

Accomplishing Goals

At its inception, it was primarily focused on fighting the trafficking of babies and children. Today it has evolved into a children’s rights organization with a bevy of goals. Whether it be their success at establishing legal rights for children in Paraguay or the founding of CODENIS bodies which protect children throughout the country today, Global Infancia has had a considerable impact on Paraguayan society. In a 2017 report by the United States Department of Labor, experts found significant advancement in Paraguay’s fight to end child labor.

However, the current situation still puts many children in danger, requiring more resources to fully end child labor. With the help of Global Infancia and the multitude of other successful NGO’s, there are no doubts that Paraguay will continue to see improvements to children’s rights.

Overall, Global Infancia is a perfect example of how a successful NGO operates. From its crucial government and community partnerships to their impressive track record of accomplishing its goals.

Myles McBride Roach

Photo: Flickr

Labor Unions in MexicoIn May 2019, workers won the right to form labor unions in Mexico. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), seven out of 10 Mexicans live in poverty or vulnerability. Meanwhile, the country’s minimum wage is $5.40 a day. Below are 10 facts about labor unions in Mexico and the promise of their implementation to alleviate Mexican poverty.

10 Facts About Labor Unions in Mexico

  1. Before the start of labor reform, thousands of Mexican workers went on strike for better pay, safer working conditions and union representation. The strikes shut down dozens of factories, resulting in 48 assembly plants agreeing to the workers’ demands.
  2. By granting workers the right to form labor unions, they can now engage in collective bargaining. This means that workers in Mexico, organized in a union, can negotiate their own pay, benefits and workplace conditions. Furthermore, they can provide a safeguard against workplace harassment and unlawful business practices.
  3. Many Mexican workers are already members of a union. Due to the fact that these unions completely exclude workers from their processes, however, others have dubbed them ghost unions. Employers establish these unions and they largely exist only on paper. Upon hiring, companies make workers join their union, which prevents workers from forming their own union and negotiating terms themselves. In fact, companies in Mexico force nine out of 10 union contracts without the consent, and sometimes knowledge, of their workers.
  4. Mexican President López Obrador implemented the new labor laws. He did this along with both branches of the Mexican congress in order to raise living standards, reduce crime and discourage migration to the United States. The left-wing president promises to carry out a “radical transformation” in Mexico, focusing on the needs of the poor and rooting out corruption.
  5. Wages in Mexico have fallen far behind the rate of inflation. The average hourly wage for a factory worker in Mexico, traditionally a unionized job, is approximately $2. Collective bargaining gives workers the right to negotiate wages, ensuring that workers have the efficacy to reduce the gap between inflation and pay.
  6. Depending on the collective bargaining contract, many unions provide protections against workplace harassment and unjust employee termination. Human Rights Watch (HRW) identifies forced pregnancy tests and mistreatment of migrant workers as areas of particular concern in Mexico. Employee complaints led to no change in business practices, but union contracts give workers the opportunity to push the issue in order to protect the most vulnerable among them.
  7. HRW and Mexican workers cite unsafe workplace conditions. These indicate employees need more robust labor protections. President Obrador campaigned on a promise to improve workers’ conditions through union representation. The need for better conditions is clear; HRW described some workplaces in Mexico as “life-threatening.”
  8. According to the OECD, 71 percent of the value created by corporations in Mexico goes to shareholders. On the other hand, workers receive only 28 percent. Employees in the United States, on the other hand, have a 69 percent share, and shareholders receive 21 percent of the value created. The disproportionate share exists as evidence of a lack of workers’ representation and labor unions in Mexico can help reverse the trend.
  9. The North American Free Trade Agreement included provisions in order to protect workers’ rights. According to HRW, people often ignored those provisions, especially in Mexico. The recent labor reform comes on the heels of a renegotiated trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The USMCA seeks to, among other things, reduce the gap between workers’ protections in all three signatories.
  10. While labor unions will not completely alleviate Mexican poverty, the country can expect to make some gains. As the share of the value created by corporations becomes more evenly distributed among workers, the Mexican economy will benefit as a whole. Put simply, a larger share of the money will remain in Mexico due to union representation.

Stronger worker protections in Mexico promise to strengthen its middle-class and help the poor. By reducing the degree of poverty, Mexico can also expect to enjoy greater stability. Labor unions in Mexico present an opportunity for economic expansion, foreign investment and an entirely new market for consumer goods.

– Kyle Linder
Photo: Google Images

Facts about Workers' Rights in China
While China has grown to be one of the world’s largest economies, nearly 500 million citizens still live on less than $2 a day. As China’s economy booms, its laborers suffer. While the struggle for workers’ rights in China has been arduous, workers are collectively making their voices heard and are finding power in strikes and protests.

  1. Employers tread on workers’ rights – Independent labor unions are illegal in China. The government only endorses one union, known as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). All other unions fall under their hierarchical control. Since ACFTU is tied to the government, it prioritizes government stability. Most workers do not see it as a reliable advocate for their rights.China Labor Watch (CLW), a workers’ advocacy group, investigated working conditions at Catcher Technology Co., a company that manufactures parts for Apple, Inc. CLW discovered many instances of unpaid overtime work, forced improper handling of toxic materials and work on machines without proper training. Workers report feeling nauseous from the fumes, getting headaches from the noise of the machines––and working so hard that their hands turn white.
  2. Law fails to protect workers’ rights in China – Under Chinese law, workers are technically guaranteed the right to a 40-hour work week with overtime pay, a minimum wage and social security benefits. But enforcement is down to the local governments. Unfortunately, underfunded and understaffed local governments often ignore violations of workers’ rights in China.When violations are reported, documented proof of employment is required to take employers to court. However, the rise of the “informal economy” in China means that many migrant workers are working without formal contracts. They are not officially employed anywhere, moving to and from companies to work during peak production seasons.
  3. Labor activists are changing the landscape – But Chinese workers are standing up. Approximately 600 worker strikes or protests were reported in 2017 alone, but estimates accounting for unreported strikes in recent years are even higher. In 2010, it was China’s youth that led the way. At the Nanhai Honda factory, a 23-year-old named Tan Guocheng led a 19-day long strike of young workers demanding higher wages––and they were victorious.When the Lide shoe factory decided to relocate in 2014, it did not consult its workers; instead, it provided them with little to no compensation. Workers came together to demand fair compensation for the relocation and the welfare benefits the company already legally owed them but had not been paying them. In a collective bargaining process that lasted for over nine months, the company was forced to compensate its workers and finally cover their social insurance and housing funds.
  4. The Chinese government cracks down on activists – In March of 2016, eight workers were sentenced to up to eight months in prison just for protesting their low wages in public. They were charged with the crime of “severely obstructing social-administrative order.”Wu Guijun used to be a factory worker and is now a dedicated labor activist. After organizing a protest of two hundred people, he was detained for more than a year. His crime? “Gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic.” Guijun was eventually acquitted.
  5. NGOs fight for workers’ rights in China – After Guijun was acquitted, he was compensated by the government and used that money to found a labor rights group called Xin Gong Yi. This nongovernmental organization (NGO) stands up for workers by giving them legal advice.The Panyu Workers’ Service Centre, an NGO based in the city of Guangzhou, advocates for better labor laws. They submit key research reports to the Chinese legislature, stressing the importance of protecting all citizens equally. For example, they helped draft a new social security law in 2008 that increased the legally mandated welfare benefits for workers.

China’s economic prosperity is built on the backs of its laborers. But, when they engage in collective action and demand to be treated fairly, they can be a pivotal political force. Panyu activist, Zhu Xiaomei, explains in the documentary “We the Workers”: “There’s only one way: solidarity.”

– Ivana Bozic
Photo: Flickr