The Human Cost of Chinese Growth

On the 17th of March 2003, police in Guangzhou stopped Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker from Hubei Province and graduate of Wuhan University of Science and Technology, and detained him because he hid not have a temporary residence permit. He was not released, but was transferred to a holding centre for ‘vagrants’ (无业游民), and three days later died in custody. In the ensuing public outcry and media storm, twelve police officers were charged with causing Sun’s death and the Chinese government promised to implement reforms to the China’s household registration system, referred to Chinese as the hukou (户口). Little over a decade later, it seemed as though nothing had changed – images of a Taiyuan police officer standing over the body of Zhou Xiuyun, a migrant worker who had gone with a group of colleagues to dispute wage arrears with their employer, went viral on Chinese social media in December 2013. As with the death of Sun Zhigang, public outcry led to charges against individual policemen but little substantial change. Sun Zhigang and Zhou Xiuyun, and many more like them, reveal the human cost of China’s economic boom, much of which has been built on migrant labour.

The scale of migrant work in China is staggering. In 2015, 277.5 million people – equivalent to 4.5 times the population of the UK – were classified as ‘rural migrant workers’ (农民工). Only around one third of these have an employment contract. Contracts tend to be treated as a starting point for negotiations rather than binding agreements, and disputes also hold the potential to end with violent – and in the case of Zhou Xiuyun, deadly – responses by police. This discrimination is driven by a complex mix of economic and social power imbalances and a lack of accountability for employers. Despite promises by Xi Jinping to move China towards the ‘rule of law’ (法治), neither employers nor police tend to face real consequences for flouting legal responsibilities.

Crowds wait outside Guangzhou Railway Station to get home for Chinese New Year, by Eye Steel Film

In some ways, these two incidents mirror each other – both were victims to abuses of police power, but the reasons for these abuses were different. Zhou Xiuyun was killed while trying to assert her legal and constitutional rights under Chinese law, which are fairly comprehensive but rarely enforced. Sun Zhigang, on the other hand, only come under threat from the police as a result of the systemic violence of China’s household registration system. Under this system, access to education, housing, and social security are restricted to one’s region of birth, with drastically different benefits for ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ residents. A legacy of the command economy and early industrialisation of the PRC, the hukou system provided urban workers with an ‘iron rice bowl’ (tiefanwan 铁饭碗) of state support from cradle to grave, underpinned by food produced by self-sufficient rural areas. Despite their Chinese citizenship, Zhou Xiuyun and Sun Zhigang were more akin to Mexican workers in America than French workers in Germany. Sporadic reform efforts tend to be quietly shelved once public anger subsides, and the incompatibility of the hukou with guarantees of legal equality under the Chinese constitution persists.

However, the police and the hukou system are far from the only dangers to migrant workers, who disproportionately occupy dangerous sectors such as construction and sanitation. The vast majority of the 68,000 recorded work-related deaths in 2014 took place in sectors dominated by migrant labour. As is the case with migrant workers across the world, Chinese migrant workers face dangerous and taxing working conditions. Feelings of depression, loneliness, and despair are also disproportionately common among migrant workers. Just two months ago, Foxconn – the company responsible for assembling iPhones, in Chinese factories that have become notorious for high levels of worker suicides – saw yet another worker leap to his death.

Furthermore, the human rights implications of the staggering movements of people that have fuelled China’s recent economic often go beyond the impact on the workers themselves. Fan Lixin’s The Last Train Home is a powerful portrayal of the strains placed on families of migrant workers, and children of absent parents are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, which remains heavily taboo. Parents often face a choice between leaving children with relatives at home, where they will at least have access to education, and taking them to their host city where the right to education, although legally guaranteed, is often out of reach in practical terms.

Despite this precarious existence and the dangers involved in holding employers to account, labour disputes have spiked in recent years, as the Chinese economic slowdown leads to increasing non-payment of wages and awareness of legal rights increases among an increasingly educated migrant worker population. January 2016 was a record month for labour-related incidents, with 503 strikes and labour protests recorded across the country. In addition to this absolute increase, the distribution of protests is widening both by sector and by region, driven by demands for higher wages and increasing wage arrears. This trend shows little chance of changing any time soon.

Migrant workers in China face a complex array of legal and personal challenges, necessitating an equally complex solution. Improvements in the enforcement of labour laws and police handling of disputes might have helped Zhou Xiuyun, but without reforms to the hukou people in Sun Zhigang’s position would still be vulnerable to arrest and detention. The household registration system and deficiencies in the rule of law in China are the two fundamental obstacles to improvement in migrant worker conditions – meaning that the ultimate solution will not be found without major changes both policy and enforcement, both at the central and local level. Although foreign actors cannot influence this directly, supporting and giving publicity to the Chinese activists, workers, and lawyers that are fighting for improved labour rights is vital for these movements to succeed. China is entering its most repressive period since 1989, but international attention and condemnation of human rights abuses can and do force the state to exercise restraint. However, this is not exclusively an issue of Chinese human rights abuses. From smartphones in China, to construction deaths related to the Qatar World Cup, or closer to home in the UK, the exploitation of migrant workers is a system in which we are all complicit.

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