The news that workers in Suzhou had rioted this week over low pay and claims of poisoning was a stark reminder that while China’s export trade is recovering in the beginning of 2010, the same cannot be said for the working conditions of the country’s tens of millions of factory workers.
The case of the Taiwan-owned Wintek factory, which make electronic components for Apple, is not unusual. Last year, an audit of factories Apple contracts with in China showed that more than half were not paying valid overtime rates for those that qualified. In addition, 23 of the 83 surveyed factories weren’t even paying their workers minimum wage.
Apple is not alone in this respect. In 2008 labor groups claimed that Chinese factory workers lose or break about 40,000 fingers a year on the job, as well as accusing factories in the Pearl River Delta of unfair labor practices, using child labor and failing to pay wages. These factories supply multinational corporations such as Wal-Mart, Disney and Dell.
When asked about working conditions in its Chinese factories, Apple maintained that they regularly checked on their managers and encouraged workers to complain anonymously if they had problems with working conditions. Unfortunately it remains true that short of posting an Apple employee in factories permanently – reducing the cost benefit of outsourcing and possibly increasing Apple’s direct legal exposure – there is little that multinational companies can do to stop abuses behind the backs of their inspectors.
This, of course, is where Beijing comes in to the equation. In the defence of multinational corporations such as Apple, it should not be their role to write and enforce Chinese labor laws. While the government approved 2007 labor law goes some way to providing workers with limited contractual protection, it remains largely unenforceable since many of the workers in the worst conditions are migrants, and unable to exercise their newly-given employment rights. The law will largely benefit white collar workers, helping them to sue their foreign employers if dismissed unfairly, but will do little to improve the lot of factory workers, still bound by the outdated hukou system.
The Suzhou riots raise a great deal of questions for Beijing, first among them being why workers felt so strongly that the government would not protect them that they risked their jobs, and their liberty, by fighting police and vandalizing their factory. It may be early days for labor law in China, but as the country’s economy races forward at break-neck speed, Beijing should ensure that the people who are fuelling it are not left behind.