Young factory workers in China, many barely out of school, are routinely exploited by unscrupulous bosses who push them to work long hours and then cheat them out of their due compensation. Those who have the courage to complain are often viciously targeted by management. In most cases workers can only protect their rights collective action.
In May 2006, Han Dongfang talked to the elder brother of a young woman who had been working at a privately-owned clothing factory in Wuhan. She began work at Wuhan Fengguang Artex Co Ltd in October 2005, aged 16 after the death of her father. The workers were paid at a piece rate but the factory manager reduced the piece work rate during times of higher work volume, so that, when the workers produced more and worked longer hours, they earned less. Eventually, the piece work rate was eliminated altogether and the workers received no extra pay for their higher productivity. The young woman complained and the boss retaliated by refusing to pay the back wages owed to her.
According to the woman’s brother, Wuhan Fengguang Artex Co Ltd had been in operation for at least 30 years, employed 30 workers and had somewhere between one and two million yuan in capital. “You can see their brands at the New Century Department Store here in Wuhan,” he said. He indicated that the factory had not signed either individual or collective labour contracts with its workers, neither was there a union presence at the factory. Typically, the workers began work at 7:00 a.m, they had two one-hour breaks for lunch and dinner, and often worked until 9:00 p.m. They were rarely given a day off at weekends. There was no health insurance, pension, or workers compensation.
Many of the young women working at the factory “really couldn’t take it” and at times collectively demanded a rest, saying, “We are going to rest, whether you approve or not.” At those times the factory manager had no choice and would go along with them. If the workers did not collectively demand a day off, the manager hardly ever granted time off. There were no vacation days to speak of, except perhaps a day off on the National Day and Labour Day holidays.
By the Chinese New Year in early 2006, the young woman felt increasingly oppressed and wanted to leave. The piece work rate dropped lower and lower. “For example,” the brother said: “They were paid three yuan for a child’s shirt in October, but in November they were told the price for this piece of clothing had dropped to 2.8 yuan. When they made a lot of clothing, the faster they worked, the faster the price would drop.” The most the factory’s workers could earn was 700 or 800 yuan per month. More often they earned 500 or 600 yuan.
At one point in April of 2006, the employees had worked for 45 days but had only been paid for 30 days’ work. The management spread the word that the workers could resign if they wished, by writing a letter to the management. The management then paid the 15 days’ back wages “if they felt like it.” If they were unhappy with a worker, as was the case with his sister, the brother said, they did not pay. When she submitted her resignation letter, management refused to respond so after waiting for a week, the young woman finally left the factory of her own accord.
When she went back to the factory at the end of April to ask for three days’ back wages, she was told she would not be paid. When she asked for the 100 yuan Chinese New Year bonus that had not been paid, she was beaten by her supervisor. She reported the assault to the police and the neighborhood security office mediated a settlement in which the factory agreed to pay the woman’s 70 yuan in medical expenses.
When the brother sought an apology from the factory manager, the manager responded, “I can discipline the workers in this factory.” He refused the brother’s demand that his sister’s wages be paid. When the brother listed the ways in which the factory was violating its employees’ rights, the manager said, “If I’m illegal, then go to the labour bureau and report me!” The brother decided to do just that, and asked his sister to go the Donghu district labour bureau and report the labour rights violations. After hearing her story, the labour bureau said they would respond by phone within 60 days. At the time of the interview, the brother was still waiting for a response.
The young woman eventually found employment at another clothing factory but the brother said conditions were “about the same” as those at the old factory, although “the wages definitely won’t be lower at this place, because we know the boss.” The new factory was smaller, with only a dozen or so workers. The workers averaged nine or ten hours per day and there were no days off at weekends. The one advantage was that the management of this factory did not lower the piece work rate at will, and guaranteed a minimum wage.
When the brother was asked what plans his sister had for the future, he replied, “What plans can we have in this situation? We have no other choice but to get by like this.” The brother himself worked as an electrician at a large property management company with numerous local branches, and said that he didn’t have health insurance or any other benefits, either. Some employees had benefits and some did not, he said, despite the management having millions of yuan in capital. Although he had asked for benefits in the past, and received no response, he was afraid of “pushing too hard” and jeopardizing his steady wages.
Although the brother had considered taking legal action to pursue his sisters’ labour rights, he felt that they could not afford the cost. He had not considered contacting the local branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), not being aware of their role under the law in this type of situation. Instead, he said, he had used the internet and the telephone to speak out about this case. After hearing of the free legal services that the district and county ACFTU branches were legally obligated to provide, the brother said he would pursue this avenue.
Han Dongfang’s interview with the worker’s brother was originally broadcast in two episodes in May 2006.