Internal migration: a growing problem
The Chinese labour force in the south and eastern garment producing provinces is largely made up of internal migrant workers who relocate from rural areas to find employment. Under the Chinese household registration system, Hukou, workers are forced to register as citizens according to family residence. Many migrant workers obtain employment through agencies, who fail to obtain urban registration for the workers. This means they are working illegally, without the correct documents, making them even more vulnerable to unfair dismissal, non-payment of wages and non-existent labour contracts. There is often no way for migrant workers to get city citizenship, which means they are, in many instances, denied basic rights such as public housing, health care and education. This makes them totally reliant on medical care and housing provided by their employer.
No freedom of association
To date China has refused to ratify ILO Conventions 87 on Freedom of Association and 98 on Organising and Collective Bargaining, and actively suppresses this right in law. Although Article 3 of the Trade Union Law states that “all manual or metal workers...have the right to organise and join trade unions” , the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only legally-recognized national trade union and any trade unions that are formed by workers must be under the supervision and direction of the ACFTU and must affiliate to the ACFTU at local, national or industrial level. This means that the ACFTU has a monopoly on worker representation. The right to strike was removed from the Chinese constitution in 1982 and has not been mentioned in any subsequent labour legislation. Although this means that strikes are neither legal nor illegal, in practice they are widely repressed.
Most workers continue to earn well below what is needed to provide a living wage. Low wages are further exacerbated by the tendency for employers to withhold wages, or delay payment of wages for a month or more despite provisions in the labour law which state that salaries must be paid as a monthly payment and without delay. According to Chinese labour law, both the employee and employer are obliged to contribute to social insurance schemes covering pension, work-related injury insurance and medical insurance. The flouting of these payments is widespread in China, and the failure of employers to provide clearly explained pay slips means many workers do not know if they are insured or not. Workers are also entitled to receive paid sick leave equivalent to 80% of the minimum wage. Again, many employers simply refuse to provide any wage at all to workers who are ill.
The prevalence of low wages and lack of benefits means that many workers are obliged by economic necessity to work excessive overtime, even in cases where such overtime is
considered voluntary. In reality few workers have a choice over whether they work overtime, and refusal can often result in punishments, fines or even dismissals. Chinese law defines a standard working week as 40 hours per week or 174 hours per month, with at least one rest day per week and restricts legal overtime hours to a maximum of 36 hours per month. Yet research shows that workers are obliged to work two to three times that amount. Rules on extra overtime pay are also flouted with many employers classifying Saturday as “normal” time and either paying no premium at all or premiums well below the legal figure for both weekday and weekend overtime. Given the extent of overtime carried out by Chinese workers, this constitutes a significant non-payment of legally-mandated wages.
Short term contracts
Another major labour issue facing Chinese workers is the use of short-term or fixed-term contracts and the increasing use of temporary workers. The vast majority of workers in China are on fixed-term contracts, giving them employment for one to three years. This leaves workers without any long-term job security and vulnerable to unfair dismissal or refusal to renew contracts. Many workers are never given a copy of their contract.
Gender discrimination continues to be widespread. Women are often employed in lower-paid, less-skilled work, receive pay that is lower than their male counterparts, rarely get employed at managerial level and are subject to verbal and sexual harassment. Many
women workers are forced out of jobs after becoming pregnant, and few are afforded the maternity rights they are entitled to.