Friday, June 29, 2007

Slavery China Style

I've written before about China's great leap forward into the world of capitalism and global markets. What will happen over the next 20 years and what it will mean for the people of China, and the rest of us, is surely one of the big development questions of our generation.

Or, more accurately, it is several of the biggest development questions of this day and age bundled together. One of the most important being what the current wave of economic development will mean for China's poor.

At present, China's economic growth appears to be a rising tide that is lifting most ships. But it is certainly also a tide that is lifting those at the top much higher than those at the bottom. Similarly, while it's true that sweatshops are probably a better alternative than grinding rural poverty, in the absence of independent trade unions and a free media, it's also true that the manufacturing boom isn't doing as much as it could for the country's workers. And the conditions that it is taking place under are most definitely unjust.

At its very worst this injustice is, quite literally, slavery. Here's Li Datong in OpenDemocracy:

Another shocking news story broke in China in June 2007. It was discovered that in Hongtong county, Shanxi province, people kidnapped from rural areas were being forced to work as slaves in a brick kiln. Horrifying television footage showed them after their chance rescue - they were filthy and emaciated, with their clothes in tatters and blank expressions on their faces. It was impossible not to think of the images of holocaust survivors rescued from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War.

Similar scenes occurred over the following days. After an instruction from "senior leaders in the central government" an inspection team was sent to the area. It was only at this point that local officials seemed to wake up and stir into action, beginning with a large scale investigation and rescue operation. By 22 June, several hundred "slave workers" had been rescued. Of the 3,347 Shanxi brick kilns investigated, 2,036 were operating without the proper licenses or tax registration. A total of 53,036 people were being illegally employed. The investigation uncovered cases of people being kidnapped, of restriction of personal freedom, of forced labour, use of child labour, and abuse and even murder of workers.

While we are on the subject of labour rights in China, the recent skirmish over the draft 'labour contract law' is an interesting example of the political economy of globalisation. When the Chinese government finally appeared to be taking action to provide workers with some basic protection who should spring up to oppose them? Why, western business interests, of course.

Perhaps more surprising, and definitely more inspiring, was the countervailing force that sprung up. Once again, Li Datong:

On the morning of 24 April 2006, the managers of over twenty American companies were invited by AmCham Shanghai to attend a seminar to attack the labour-contract law, with the threat of withdrawing investment. The opposition to this law by multinational firms caught the attention of the US media, and on 13 October the New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: "China Drafts Law to Empower Unions and End Labour Abuse".


The reaction to the article in the New York Times surpassed any Chinese expectations: American union organisations publicly began to support the Chinese law and leftwing members of Congress wrote a letter to President Bush on 31 October stating: "We would like to declare our opposition towards the actions of American companies, which are attempting to thwart the drafting of the new Chinese labour contract law that will give workers more rights".

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