Rural Women Migrant Workers Shut Out of Chinas Economic Boom

2007-07-27
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Rural migrant workers on the streets of Shenyang. Photo: AFP

China’s economic boom has been forged on the back of a cheap labor supply. What makes it so cheap isn’t just low wages—many workers have no access to industrial accident insurance, health insurance, or pension plans.

RFA’s Mandarin service has learned more about rural migrant workers in China’s big cities by talking to two women who have been sacked by their employers after suffering major setbacks.

“I was standing on a high stool sticking a strip of cloth,” said 47-year-old Chen Qiuzhen. “The cloth broke and I fell off the stool. At the time I was unable to walk, and they had to help me out to get transport.”

Chen traveled to the economically booming southern province of Guangdong from the countryside around Changde city, in the central province of Hunan, at the end of last year, and began working in the Wangniudun packaging plant connected to a Unilever factory in Dongguan city.

In March she sustained injuries following a fall at work, and the hospital diagnosed her with a compression fracture to the 12th thoracic vertebra.

One factor is regional protectionism. Another is vested interests within the department. The labor departments and the companies swim in the same deep waters together. It's not easy to talk about this.

Forced to resign

She remained in hospital for a month after admission, until her employers began to put pressure on her to discharge herself before she was fully recovered.

Initially, the factory asked Chen to pay for the cost of her stay in hospital, as she had no health insurance. They also asked her to resign from her job and go back home, offering her a payment of just 1,000 yuan (U.S.$132).

After several bargaining sessions, the factory finally agreed to pay her hospital bills and compensated her 6,000 yuan for the on-the-job injury. Chen had no other options.

Now, four months have passed since the accident, and Chen’s injury still hasn’t healed, making her unable to sit for any length of time without further damage and injury to her spine. She has no job and no health insurance, and is unsure how long her current savings of 6,000 yuan will last her.

Meanwhile, in the nearby city of Shenzhen, a 20 year-old woman from the southwestern province of Sichuan, went into a psychotic state after witnessing police brutality during a strike of 8,000 workers at the Shenzhen Baoji Arts and Crafts Co. Ltd, her aunt told RFA.

Fu Liangdan’s employer insisted that she be discharged from hospital, too, saying it would pay the hospital bills and medicine charges, and give her the 2,800 yuan (U.S.$370) she was owed in wages, if she agreed to resign from her job and return home.

Employers liable

The company refused to give out any compensation or severance pay on the basis that Fu’s injuries were not caused by an industrial accident.

“There was nothing we could do,” Fu’s aunt, Jiang Chunfeng, said.

“They wouldn’t give us any money. We went to the labor bureau and told them how ill she was, how she hadn’t eaten anything for more than 10 days. I said she would still need medical treatment even after returning home. Her father came over without anywhere to stay or anything to eat, and he was all shaken up and needed medication. I was extremely anxious and so I agreed to their demands,” Jiang said.

Liu Kaiming, a labor expert at the Shenzhen Institute for Contemporary Social Studies, said that according to the Industrial Accidents Insurance Law of the People’s Republic of China, Fu’s injury was not caused by an industrial accident. But he said she should still be entitled to a certain level of care even so.

“This is a designated ‘special acute illness’ requiring treatment of 3-6 months. As such, the hospital fees are payable by the employer, and she should receive 60% of her salary during this time,” Liu said.

A human resources officer at the Baoji Arts and Crafts factory would make no promises about any such benefit for Fu.

No deterrent for companies

“We have conducted this case according to the law. We have given her everything that we are obliged to give her. If you want to know any more you will have to contact people higher up with your queries. We have no further response to make,” said Director He, who declined to give her full name. However, her manager was on holiday and couldn't be reached at the time of broadcast.

Jiang Chunfeng said Fu’s condition had not improved. She rarely spoke, Jiang said, and said she didn’t know the answer to anything she was asked.

Her case is similar to that of Chen Qiuzhen in that she lacks any kind of insurance, and has lost her livelihood, along with any hope of medical treatment.

Article 73 of the Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China stipulates that “workers shall enjoy social insurance treatment according to law...including retirement, falling ill or suffering job-related injuries...”

Both women were kicked out by their respective employers after they lost the ability to work, and neither the factories, nor society at large, nor the government, has taken any responsibility for their cases.

An official at the Shenzhen municipal labor bureau surnamed Mo said Chen’s employers would be subject to punishment by the government.

'Deep waters'

“This is illegal, because we have a rule that social insurance policies must be provided for all employees. If they come and lodge a complaint, we will deal with it,” she said.

But Chen said she had already been to the labor bureau, so they ought to have known about the case already, and no sanctions had yet been taken by the labor bureau against Unilever.

Guangdong-based civil rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who is very familiar with Chen’s case, said the problem lay in that a company that chooses to break the law in this way faces no punishment or calls for redress.

“No case has been set up, and no penalties have been imposed on the company involved. Secondly, it would cost a lot to bring a case, should this female worker choose to do so, and the likelihood of actually getting any money at the end of a long, slow process would be low. This also shows a certain judicial environment, and in such an environment, the penalties for companies that break the law are not high. That’s why they dare to behave in this way,” Tang said.

Shenzhen-based labor activist Li Yuanfeng said that while labor departments had managed to be of some use to certain individuals in past disputes, on the whole their interests were aligned with those of the big companies.

“One factor is regional protectionism. Another is vested interests within the department. The labor departments and the companies swim in the same deep waters together. It’s not easy to talk about this.”

Activists under pressure

Meanwhile, China’s female rural migrant workers, who are on the lowest rung of the social ladder, get scant care from their employers and little compassion from the government.

They sometimes turn to labor activists like Li Yuanfeng, volunteers who are usually highly educated, often with some legal training.

They are concerned about the weakest members of society and hope to protect their rights and interests. Chen and Fu’s families are both aware that the women’s rights have been infringed upon, and they have come to these activists for help hoping to get compensated through legal means.

But, as Tang points out, the government is now snapping at the heels of these activists, giving them less and less room for maneuver.

“One thing the authorities can do is to refuse to carry out the annual inspection, so that the companies they set up [to help people] are unable to retain their trading licenses for another year.”

“Another is that they have begun investigating certain non-government groups. Of course they are going to find some who are operating without a business license, although some of them are not. Thirdly, many of these people are now being investigated or are under surveillance by police, which makes their lives very difficult indeed.”

Tang said that while there were vast numbers of Chinese workers, the government still refused to allow them to set up organized labor unions, meaning that they had no leverage with which to negotiate with management.

Many sweat shops still lurk behind China’s image as “the factory of the world.”

Migrant workers may have made a massive contribution to China’s economic development, but they are still lagging far behind when it comes to reaping the benefits.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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