Workers Have a Right to Decent Work

By EO Editorial Board
Published: 2010-06-07

Cover Editorial - EO print edition no. 472
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

Foxconn, the world's biggest original equipment manufacturer (OEM), has announced that it will raise the pay of its lowest-paid workers by over 30 percent. Though Foxconn attributed the need for the wage increase to the recent rise in the cost of living and price of goods, as well as the improved operation of the company as a whole, it is obvious that the pay rise is directly linked with the deaths of 10 of their employees who all leaped to their deaths in recent weeks.

It is only because of this more-than-30 percent hike in pay that the monthly salary of the lowest-level Foxconn worker has exceeded 1,000 yuan a month for the first time. However, it is predicted that the standard minimum wage in the Shenzhen region will be no less than 1,100 yuan a month this year. That's to say, even with a such a big pay rise, the wage of Foxconn's employees is only now just approaching the minimum wage level and they still have to work overtime if they want to earn enough pay.

Can we say that this is a decent job?

In response to the rise in labor tension over recent years, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions released a notice called Guidelines to Further Stabilize Employees and Society that called on China's official union to ensure a decent work and living conditions for all employees. This notice echoes the call made by President Hu Jintao at the recent national awards conference for model and advanced workers to "ensure the broad mass of ordinary people have decent work." 

The phrase of "decent work" was firstly used by Juan Somavia, general secretary of the International Labor Organization (ILO), it basically means that the rights of workers should be protected, that they are paid enough, that they have adequate social protection and employment available to them. If we want to measure ourselves according to this international standard, we are still a long way from achieving the goal of decent work. It's obvious that the rights of workers are not protected, working overtime has become a standard practice and often, even after working plenty of over time, the pay is not good enough to ensure that workers can live with dignity.

Do our workers have adequate social protection and are there enough positions available for every ordinary worker who wants a job?

Though there are many areas of the country that are experiencing a labor shortage, this is because the places that are able to offer us work are not able to offer us a decent job that allows us to have a dignified life.

The public is aware of the consequence brought about when people don't have access to decent work. China is now in a transitional period when social tensions are on the rise and labor issues are a major source of much of this tension.

Over recent times a new trend has emerged and the scale and violence of such of such conflicts has increased.

Obviously, such disputes can not simply be solved through the offering of psychological assistance, as this only improves the ability of workers to withstand such poor conditions rather than protecting their real rights.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions also admits that protecting the rights of workers is the precondition and basis of maintaining social stability.

Though protecting their rights is not the same as giving them a raise, often the most basic appeal of those whose rights we should be protecting is to increase their pay, especially when what they are earning is unreasonably low. Currently, workers leap off buildings or organize strikes in order to realize their demands, this is naturally not the normal way to solve labor disputes.We need to make use of better mechanisms for negotiation in order to realize these goals.

China has issued many policies and regulations to protect the rights of ordinary workers, such as the Labor Contract Law and directives related to Collective Wage Bargaining etc; local governments have also established specialized labor monitoring agencies.

But labor disputes still can not be resolved smoothly because there is no effective and fair negotiating mechanism; the ability of labor unions to protect the rights of labor is limited. Local governments only tend to act in response to a crisis and have yet to establish a mechanism that attempts to prevent conflicts between employers and employees. 

Even the labor unions have not been able to establish a firm foothold in many companies. According to media reports, Foxconn's labor union has only 15 full-time workers and 270 part-time workers. The Chinese government has required companies to allocate one special labor union worker for every 1,000 workers. With the number of its employees reaching hundreds of thousands, the scale of Foxconn's labor union is definitely below the required number.

The collective wage bargaining system, which was set up to create a channel for communication between employers and employees has not been implemented very well either. Of the 13 million companies in China, more than 10 million small and medium-sized enterprises have not established such a system of collective wage bargaining.

We may explain labor disputes by referencing many causes, but, be they the first generation of migrant workers or workers from the new second generation, decent work is what we owe them. Now as we try to make up for past injustices, we need to understand that we are not doing them a good turn, but rather, paying off a debt that we owe them.

This article was edited by Paul Pennay