China’s workers are calling for change. What role should brands play?

In a report published on 17 May, China’s workers are calling for change. What role should brands play? FIDH reports on recent encouraging developments regarding labour rights in China whilst highlighting a number of concerns about working conditions in factories. This report follows a fact-finding mission conducted in November 2012 to Guangdong, in southeast China, in order to assess working conditions in a selection of factories supplying multinational enterprises.

Since the 1990’s, China’s legislative framework has gradually improved, especially concerning working hours, labour contracts and social security. Moreover, the low wages that contributed to making China “the world’s factory” at the end of the twentieth century, have seen notable increases.

However, despite these significant improvements, wages remain largely inadequate in light of soaring prices. Migrant workers originating from China’s rural areas thus accept long working hours that infringe labour laws which limit daily working time to 8 hours, and overtime to 36 hours per month. In factories visited by FIDH, staff worked between 60 and 80 hours per week. For migrant workers living in factory dormitories or nearby, the aim is often to earn as much money as possible to meet the needs of parents and children left behind in their home village. Some hope to return home after a few years of intensive working in Guangdong factories.

Workers have little leeway to enforce their rights. The only authorized Chinese union (the All China Federation of Trade Unions - ACFTU), an arm of the Communist Party, focuses more on maintaining social stability than defending workers.

As for social audits commissioned by international buyers, their scope is limited: they may be useful to measure certain aspects of working conditions (working hours, contracts, social security, housing conditions) and can lead to improvements when they are closely monitored by buyers, but sub-contractors – whose use is particularly common for dangerous operations – generally escape audit control. In addition, factory managers frequently appoint so-called workers’ representatives themselves in a bid to maintain an appearance of social audit compliance. Audits do not allow for the advancement of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Complementary action must therefore be taken by international buyers to this end, in particular with regard to purchasing practices.

Social conflicts have increased dramatically in China over the last ten years. In some cases, mobilisation, including through strikes, has allowed workers to secure tangible improvements in wages and social benefits, and sometimes even in workers’ representation.

Workers communicate increasingly via social networks and mobile phones thus multiplying their capacity for action. Younger generations also increasingly refuse to endure the same working conditions as their parents.

A new generation of workers in China is taking action to defend its rights. Multinational companies must respect this and require their suppliers to respect the Chinese labor law, the right of workers to freely elect their representatives and the right to collective bargaining, said Han Dongfang, Executive Director of China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a FIDH partner organization.

Today, wage increases have encouraged international buyers to reduce their production in China and source from other countries where production costs are lower. This illustrates that the purchasing practices of these brands remain guided by lowest costs. Many companies transfer or plan to shift production to countries where labour is cheaper than in China. This leaves no room for the social dimension. Such a race to the bottom is regrettable. Companies should instead adopt proactive policies in favour of workers’ rights in China, concluded Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President.

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