Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Chinese workers in the grip of global capitalism: What possibilities for resistance?

This is a special guest post from Prof. Andreas Bieler, the Principle Investigator of our ESRC project. Andreas provides an overview of our final workshop on 11 and 12 September. Andreas' post could be a good starting point to document this workshop and further posts by some of the participants would be very appreciated.

The workshop on Chinese Labour in the Global Economy was held on 11 and 12 September 2014 at Nottingham University, co-hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Studies (CSSGJ) and the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Politics (CCCP). The purpose of the workshop was not only to understand better the situation in China, but also an aspiration of contributing to the improvement of workers’ conditions. Hence, both academics as well as activists had been invited. In guest post, Andreas Bieler assesses some of the key themes discussed during the workshop.

The structuring conditions of Chinese workers

As Jane Hardy pointed out, the integration of Chinese production in the global economy needs to be assessed in view of the underlying dynamics of uneven and combined development. Chinese development is combined with industrialised countries, in that its export-led development project is driven by large transnational corporations (TNCs) and their foreign direct investment (FDI) in search for cheap labour to assemble pre-fabricated parts for the export to North American and European markets. It is also combined in the sense that modern factories in coastal regions are combined with more traditional forms of production further inland. And, of course, it is highly uneven, first in the sense that the developmental gap between China and industrialised countries remains vast, and second in that there is an ever larger gap opening up between a few extremely rich Chinese and the majority of less well-off, often impoverished people.

In many respects, China provides a ‘spatial fix’ for the global economy’s crisis of overaccumulation by presenting new profitable investment opportunities. At the same time, such a fix is never stable or permanent. The question only is for how long it may be able to work? Considering the possibility of moving production sites from coastal regions towards the hinterland in the search for further cheap labour and large domestic investment programmes by the Chinese government this temporary spatial fix may be prolonged for some time to come.

The spatial fix is closely linked to the discourses around China as a ‘hope project’, discussed by Ngai-Ling Sum in her presentation. This ‘hope project’ is partly orchestrated by Western economists, financial institutions and governments, representing China as an emerging economy, the rising middle class of which may provide the necessary demand to revive the economies of industrialised countries. Equally, China as an international investor providing a new growth dynamic is part of such a discourse. Domestically, the discourse of China as a hope project has been pushed in tandem with a financial stimulus package of 4 trillion RMB in 2008 resulting in an enormous property boom and ultimately bubble. The underlying reality of these discourses is rather bleak. Ngai-Ling Sum spoke of the ‘dialectics of hope’, as the Chinese development project is cause of enormous inequality within China giving rise to new subaltern classes excluded from the benefits of economic growth.

At the heart of this dialectics of hope are the sweatshop labour conditions in the large assembly plants controlled either directly or indirectly by foreign TNCs. Gijsbert van Liemt provided an excellent overview of the structure of the global consumer electronics industry and here in particular the role played by Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, which employs 1.4 million workers in mainland China. Long working-hours, low wages and terrible working conditions are only some of the aspects characterising the plight of Foxconn workers. Nevertheless, as Jenny Chan made clear in her presentation, it is Apple, for which Foxconn assembles the various i-Phone and i-Pad products, which dominates this relationship and which is ultimately therefore also responsible for the highly exploitative working conditions. At the same time, workers are not only victims. While a new working class is emerging in China on the one hand, a global consumer group using Apple products is being formed on the other. As Jenny Chan made clear, the potential co-operation between these two groups may offer a way of improving Chinese workers’ conditions.

Chinese workers as agents of resistance?

Some people argue that the best way of improving workers’ conditions is through the technological upgrading of the production process. Nevertheless, as Florian Butollo made clear, while there has been significant technological upgrading in the Chinese garment and textile industry over recent years, this was not accompanied by social upgrading. The working conditions of workers themselves have hardly been improved.

Others argue that local government and the particular institutional setting of the accumulation regime may provide a way of improving workers’ conditions. Interestingly, while production facilities in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) are predominantly based on highly exploitative social relations or production, there are a number of examples from the Yangtse River Delta (YRD), where workers enjoy much more stable working relations and improved working conditions. On the one hand, Chun-Yi Lee and I argued that this is mainly due to the fact that these industries in the YRD are based on more high-value added activities in contrast to the assembly plants in the PRD. In other words, they are located in a very different part of the global production chain. Hence, a more highly trained and stable workforce is required and this can only be achieved through better working conditions, here supported by the local government. On the other hand, however, Chris Chan outlined the detailed local institutional setting supporting workers’ working conditions, attributing to them a key causal relevance in this respect.

Whether it is the location in the global production chain or the local institutional setting, which is the main cause of good conditions, the answer to this question is clearly not straight forward. Nevertheless, the experience with the strike at the Yue Yuen factory, one of the largest footwear manufacturers in the world, in Dongguan in April 2014 gives food for thought in this respect (see also Echo to the Voice of Chinese workers). As Stefan Schmalz reported, when 40000 to 50000 workers went on strike, the global brand Adidas started to move its orders to other production sites. This clearly indicates how little room for manoeuvre is available for the improvement of workers’ conditions, when a particular industry finds itself at the bottom of the global production chain.

Ultimately, it will to a considerable extent depend on Chinese workers themselves whether their working conditions are improved or not. As Tim Pringle indicated, an increasing focus on the right to collective bargaining has recently gained in importance. Collective bargaining as such will not transform capitalism. Collective bargaining is always a class compromise promoting ‘industrial harmony’. And yet, if successful, such a strategy can at least avoid the most severe conditions of exploitation. Interestingly, the activists from Chinese labour NGOs, present at the workshop, did not demand a transformation of capitalism. Their main objective is to gain the right of forming independent trade unions based on the right to free association, the right to strike and the right for workers to elect their own representatives.

What role for the ACFTU?

A key theme in discussions related to the activities by Chinese workers was the potential role of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Jeremy Anderson from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) introduced the Memorandum of Understanding, recently signed between the ITF and ACFTU. So far, this mainly includes a focus on dialogue, the exchange of information and further meetings and discussions at sectoral level. Considering that one third of all containers world-wide go through China and China itself has not enough seafarers, the ACFTU is an interesting contact point for the ITF.

Others, however, questioned the value of engaging with the ACFTU. A representative from the Hong Kong based labour NGO Worker Empowerment called it a waste of time, considering the way the ACFTU is part of the (authoritarian) Chinese state apparatus. Perhaps the way forward is Rob Lambert’s following suggestion. On the one hand, he argued, not to engage with the ACFTU on principle could be misguided, considering its overall importance. On the other, however, some preconditions should be formulated by other labour movements keeping in mind the basic characteristics of an independent labour organisation. Preconditions should include support for issues such as the right for workers to free association, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, etc. Simply to engage with the ACFTU without preconditions does not encourage it to move towards a more ‘normal’ trade union type of organisation, able to support workers in their struggle for better conditions.  

Importantly, whatever happens with labour rights in China will affect labour rights elsewhere in the global economy, since Chinese sweatshop working conditions have put downward pressure on workers in other parts of the world. The issue of Chinese labour in the global economy will remain topical for some time to come.

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