Mar 06

Labor Law around the World: Lessons from China

China’s meteoric rise as an economic superpower has saturated American news for years. China’s massive exports of inexpensive consumer goods are one of the chief causes of its recent prosperity.[1]  However, many are beginning to realize that some of China’s gains may be ill-gotten, with portrayals of horrific incidents like the Foxconn Technology plant suicides[2] becoming common fare in the American media.

Less frequently documented are indications that China’s nascent workers’ rights movement may be gaining ground. Several promising recent legal developments may help Chinese workers seek justice in the workplace.  First, an employee, who is known publicly by the name of Li Wan, a pseudonym, was a vocal union activist working in a Walmart in Shenzhen who was terminated after using sick leave to attend a collective bargaining seminar in Hong Kong.[3]  Walmart’s employee handbook banned “dishonest conduct,” and management officials claimed that Li’s decision to attend the seminar fell within the prohibition.[4]  In a major victory for Li and other employees who intend to seek similar relief in the future, an intermediate court ruled that this termination was illegal.[5]

Second, employees have increasingly exercised the rights they are entitled to under China’s various worker protection statutes.[6]  Several highly publicized workers’ protests, including a strike at a transmission factory at a Honda plant in 2010[7] and a short work stoppage at Foxconn last autumn,[8] were met with either overt government approval or at least tacit acceptance.

Despite these positive developments, Chinese workers remain exceptionally vulnerable to abuses in the workplace.  Although Chinese law theoretically protects workers’ rights and ensures that employees can seek union representation,[9] exercising these rights is often hindered in practice by collusion between the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and management, corruption, and the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of political protests.[10]  Although courts may be increasingly open to workers’ claims for reinstatement, it is notoriously difficult to enforce judgments in China,[11] which may make such victories illusory.

We can be sure that China’s economic dominance will continue to shape world affairs and feature prominently in the American media.  In the midst of this excitement, it is important to remember that workers in China deserve to exercise their rights and should not be left behind in the midst of rapid development.  While some recent indications suggest that the climate may be becoming more favorable for recognizing workers’ rights, much work remains to be done.  Stay tuned for more updates about China and news about labor law around the globe!

[1] E.g. Yu Yongding, China’s Response to the Global Financial Crisis, East Asia Forum (Jan. 24, 2010), available at http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2010/01/24/chinas-response-to-the-global-financial-crisis/.

[2] See, e.g., David Barboza, After Suicides, Scrutiny of China’s Grim Factories, N.Y. Times, June 6, 2010, at A1 (describing a spate of suicides and suicide attempts at Foxconn Technology plants in Shenzhen, China and suggesting that poor working conditions played a major role in the tragedies).

[3] Labor Activist Sues Walmart for Wrongful Dismissal and Wins, China Lab. Bull., Jan. 22, 2013, available at http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/labour-activist-sues-walmart-wrongful-dismissal-and-wins.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] E.g. Labor Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China, available at http://www.acftu.org.cn/template/10002/file.jsp?cid=56&aid=590; Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China [hereinafter Trade Union Law], art. 3, available at http://www.china.org.cn/english/DAT/214784.htm.

[7] Keith Bradsher & David Barboza, Strike in China Highlights Gap in Workers’ Pay, N.Y. Times, May 28, 2010, at A1.

[8] See Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Foxconn Quality Control Workers Strike over iPhone 5 Workload, Production Lines Paralyzed, Forbes (Oct. 6, 2012, 5:12 AM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/adriankingsleyhughes/2012/10/06/foxconn-quality-control-workers-strike-over-iphone-5-workload-production-lines-paralyzed/.

[9] See, e.g., Trade Union Law, art. 3 (providing that employees have the right to organize and join labor unions).

[10] See Sarah Biddulph, Responding to Industrial Unrest in China: Prospects for Strengthening the Role of Collective Bargaining, 34 Sydney L. Rev. 35, 38 (2012).

[11] See Daniel C.K. Chow, The Legal System of the People’s Republic of China 226, 2d ed. 2009 (estimating that twenty-five to thirty-five percent of all Chinese judgments are not enforced).

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