May 1st is International Workers’ Day.
The day commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair, where peaceful labor protests were disrupted by gunfire and bombings. Originally visualized as a means of protesting unfair working conditions, and advocating for the implementation of an 8-hour workday, May Day is still very much alive around the globe. While for some in developed countries it may seem a relic of the past, workers the world over still suffer from unsafe workplace practices, unfair pay, and extensive working hours. This is especially true in manufacturing centers throughout developing economies like Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and China.
China has had a very strained relationship with its workforce over the past 60 years. Although labor rights are enshrined into socialist doctrine, breakneck development and a labor pool in the hundreds of millions meant workers became expendable rather than cherished. The poster child for maltreatment of workers would have to be Taiwanese electronics giant, Foxconn. There is no need to dredge up the sins of its past as these are well known. Suffice to say, however, there was little in the way of workers’ rights the second someone set foot on a Foxconn campus.
Although Foxconn was certainly the most notable example, it was hardly the only one. Mistreatment of workers began to tarnish a China trying to change an already bad public image. As the country made its debut on the international stage, particularly during the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Expo, officials knew something had to be done. What they didn’t want was a cover-up job. The powers-that-be wanted true change for the nearly 1 billion workers under their care.
To make this a reality, two important things came to pass.
The first was the implementation of policies and processes to protect workers. These include worker safety, health, and environmental policies. The most extensive example, however, is the country’s social insurance scheme, which aims to cover citizens from cradle to grave. While in place for decades, most companies skirted payment requirements because there was no enforcement mechanism.
This led to the second major change: a measured allowance of activism. While most outside China assume protests are non-existent, this is hardly the case. Over the past decade, China has experienced a spike in labor unrest. In 2017 alone there were nearly 1,000 major labor-related protests in China according to China Labour Watch. While this is certainly down from the spike of 3,000 seen in 2015, their size, scale, and scope continue to impact policies. Generally, workers are protesting for fair treatment, payment of wages, and social insurance. In essence, they are acting as a proxy for enforcement mechanisms. Government regulators cannot realistically monitor every factory in China. Now protesters are doing it for them, highlighting the exact locations where problems are worst.
The Government has had no choice but to listen. In turn, factories are feeling the pressure to comply.
If we go back less than a decade ago, to the tragic era of Foxconn, workers were expendable necessities of operating in China. Today, treating workers well, abiding by environmental, health, and safety regulations, and providing for their fair livelihood are the foundations of business here. As a market develops, ensuring those at all levels of society develop with it is critical. In the sustainability world, we call this inclusive, or mutual, economics. In Xi Jinping’s New Era, the rights of the working class are once more front and center.