In total 85% of China’s poor live in rural areas and extreme poverty forces many of them to leave the countryside in search of employment in urban areas. Often referred to as the factory of the world, China’s industry-oriented economy relies on these migrant workers who make up the majority of the workforce.
There are approximately 150 million internal migrant workers in China who, because of their status, do not receive any state benefits or protection. They have to endure poor working conditions such as excessive and forced overtime, denial of social security rights and failure to provide employment contracts, as well as severe health risks.
Before opening up its economy in 1978, China had stringent controls on the movement of people between rural and urban areas, preventing migration to cities. These controls were part of the permit (hukou) system, in which welfare entitlements such as pensions, housing, health and education were tied to a person's place of birth.
As China moved towards a market economy, cheap rural labour helped fuel the country's growth and constraints on migration were reduced, however the restrictions on household registration of the hukou have remained in place, so migrant workers become outcasts without access to any state benefits or protection, despite Chinese laws enshrining "equal rights” for all.
Trying to escape from extreme poverty, rural migrant workers find themselves trapped in appalling working conditions. Most of these workers are women earning extremely low wages – the average monthly salary including overtime is CNY 1,690 (£150).Migrant workers endure long working days, work seven days a week, many without an employment contract and face constant discrimination. Living conditions are poor with up to six people sharing small cramped dormitories. Women migrant workers, who are primarily employed in factories, rarely get maternity leave, and with no childcare facilities and working weeks of more than 70 hours many are forced to send their children to live with family in the countryside.
There is no freedom of association to form trade unions and non-governmental labour organisations are closely monitored by the Government who carry out regular crackdowns. Multinational corporations and national factory owners take advantage of the anti-union climate, the workers’ lack of awareness of their own rights and the Chinese government’s unwillingness to address the abuse of migrant workers’ rights.
In addition the level of occupational disease and injuries is alarmingly high. In 2009 alone, approximately one million workers were injured at work and about 20,000 suffered from diseases due to their occupation. One of the biggest risks to the health of textile workers is sandblasting, a technique used to treat denim so that the fabric has a worn look. Sandblasting exposes workers to silica dust particles which severely damage their respiratory passages causing silicosis, a serious disease which, if left untreated, eventually leads to death. Although sandblasting was banned in the EC in 1966, it continues to be practised in China despite the serious health hazards it poses. Corporations are able to avoid accountability for occupational diseases like silicosis by exploiting legal loopholes. Moreover, the official state trade union has failed to take action on behalf of workers who fall ill and corporations are rarely compelled to pay sickness compensation.
War on Want worked with with Worker Empowerment (WE) and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) to empower migrant workers and improve working conditions in the Guangdong province. Established in 2003, WE is a labour organisation that seeks to empower Chinese migrant workers to defend their rights by raising workers awareness of their entitlements, and equipping them with the skills and knowledge to challenge abuses committed by employers. SACOM is a campaigning organization with six years’ experience in the implementation of hard-hitting international campaigns and entering into dialogue with brands.
- In 2009, there were 150 million migrant workers in China, of whom 6.5 million worked in the clothing industry.
- China is the world’s biggest clothing exporter – in 2009 it produced 34% of the world’s clothing exports.
- In 2009 alone, approximately one million workers suffered industrial injuries and about 20,000 were victims of occupational disease.
- In 2010, the average monthly salary, including overtime, for a migrant worker was CNY 1,690 (£150), insufficient to cover basic needs for workers and their families.
- In 2010, only 13.6% of migrant workers were part of the government pension scheme; 18.9% were part of the government medical insurance scheme and 26.2% were protected by government work-related injury insurance.