Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. 1, No. 7: June 3, 1996 
How China's Reforms Impact on Workers: An Inside Report
The old worker was brutally frank. Interviewed about how China's economic reforms had changed life in his foundry, he singled out the plant's supervisory and professional staff for criticism. "All the cadres in our factory are despicable creatures, including this guy," he said, pointing at a local union officer who was present.

Feng Tongqing, a teacher at the central training center for union officials in Beijing, recounts this incident in a long article about the labor impact of China's vast effort to blend market principles with a socialist economy. Since mid-1980, writes Feng, hostility between labor and management has mounted as the status of industrial workers, both in the enterprise and in society at large, has deteriorated.

The Situation of Workers Has Worsened in at Least Six Ways

Feng cites abundant evidence of this deterioration. Here are some of the specifics he includes in his article in the quarterly journal, Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, published in Armonk, N.Y.:

And the Deterioration is Likely to Accelerate

Although the slogan "workers are masters of the enterprise and of our society" still reverberates at ceremonial occasions, China today is further from that reality than ever. "It [the title of masters] is just fancy rhetoric. We all know that the factory is controlled by managers and intellectuals. Workers have no say...." That candid analysis was by a "model worker" quoted in a survey conducted by the Communist Party's mass organization, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

That view is not unusual, according to Feng. He makes this startling statement: "Most workers agree that the deepening of enterprise reform will accelerate the decline of their status." That trend, in turn, is fomenting resentment and cynicism. Labor disputes have increased, and have resulted in slowdowns, demonstrations, sit-ins, and strikes. Labor relations in the country's industrial enterprises are "extremely tense."

 Party's Mass Organization Also Under Stress

As a result of economic reforms, Feng writes, the ACFTU's own "organizations have been severely undermined" as its enterprise-level units are "increasingly pushed under managers' control." More and more managements are no longer making budget allocations of 2% of total payroll for the ACFTU and its branches (China's very rough equivalent of dues). The ACFTU is under stress, financially and otherwise, because of the workers' "alienation" from it and because of "the estrangement of the ACFTU from its branches."

Feng, himself a staff member of the ACFTU, says nothing about the possible emergence of genuine trade unions in China, that is, worker organizations independent of the Party and government. Yet he lays down a sound principle: "Unions must represent workers." Unions, he says, are necessary to induce managers to "respect workers' needs and dignity as human beings, not as commodities." He rates this as "a fundamental principle."

In his view, the growth of the market in China will continue to differentiate the interests of workers from those of managers and will thus clarify the current "extremely ambiguous" position of unions. But "in China it may take a long time before unions are able to genuinely represent the workers' rights and interests." In the meantime, union leaders, he argues, must make the best of the constraints facing them and try to reverse the present deterioration of the workers' situation.

Feng Tonqing's article was translated and edited by Zhao Minghua, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol. It appears in the Spring issue of Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, a quarterly. It can be purchased from M.E. Sharpe, 80 Business Park Drive, Armonk, N.Y. 105094. Fax: 914-273-2106. $95.25 a copy.

Michael Jordan, You and Other Celebrities Have a Date on July 16

Can the name of a celebrity, normally used to promote the sale of products, be turned toward promoting the rights of expoited workers who make those products? One celebrity who thinks so is Kathie Lee Gifford, TV personality and owner of the Kathie Lee brand clothing line.

She came to this view in recent weeks as a result of public revelations that she said made her "physically sick to the stomach." From graphic accounts in the media, she learned how factories making Kathie Lee pants, blouses, and other garments, both in Honduras and in New York City itself, have been illegally exploiting workers, mostly women and children.

One of those children, Wendy Diaz, now 15, traveled to Washington, D.C., from Honduras to describe the lives of workers in a Honduran sweatshop producing clothing sold under the Kathie Lee label for the Wal-Mart department store chain. Like other below-age girls, some as young as 12, she had earned only about 30 cents an hour. Worse, Korean supervisors at the plant would "yell at us to work faster," sometimes all through the night. They would "touch our legs or buttocks, pretending it's a joke," and would punish those who complained. The plea of her co-workers, she told a news conference, was to get the managers to "stop yelling at us and hitting us,...let us go to night school, and let us organize to protect our rights."

Mrs. Gifford's first impulse, after learning of such abuses, was to get out of the business, which she had entered five years earlier, partly as a way to raise funds for children's charities. Instead of washing her hands of the whole mess, however, she decided that "the problem will not go away until we combat it....It's my responsibility." She announced that she and her husband, football announcer Frank Gifford, will work for reforms and will appeal to other celebrities, including Michael Jordan, Jaclyn Smith, Andre Agassi, and Cherly Tiegs, to check on how goods bearing their names are made.

The campaign will be launched at a national meeting in Arlington, Va., on July 16, bringing together retailers, wholesalers, importers, and celebrities. In announcing the conference, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said: "We are going to show how companies can better monitor their contractors."

Could it be that the moral conscience of the garment industry -- and the celebrities who front for it -- will finally be awakened sufficiently to reverse a widening global scandal? That will take much more than a national conference, but it's a start.

A Closer Look at Imports Made by Girls and Boys

The U.S. Department of Labor, which already has to its credit two comprehensive reports on international child labor, is launching a third study. A major subject of this latest one: "efforts of U.S. companies and nongovernmental agencies aimed at eliminating the use of abusive and exploitative child labor in the production of goods imported into the United States." The Congressionally mandated study also invites written and oral testimony on these topics:

A public hearing to gather information for the study will be held on Friday, June 29, in Room N-3437 of the U.S. Department of Labor, Washington. For more information, call 202/219-7867 or fax 202/ 219-5980.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers  (Send e-mail)

 Bulletin No. 7: June 3, 1996

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