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China takes step toward worker rights

Chinese workers make toys at the Shanghai Haixin Toys Company in Shanghai.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Henry Paulson isn't the only American that Chinese trade delegation will be visiting with this week. They're scheduled to make a trip up Capitol Hill on Thursday to see Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and some other law makers — who're sure to give them an earful about lost American manufacturing jobs and unfair labor practices over there.

But from the perspective of Chinese workers, things might actually be looking up. Here's Marketplace's Scott Tong from Shanghai.


SCOTT TONG: If you ask folks in Shanghai about worker rights and employment contracts, a lot of them give you blank stares. And some people just laugh at you.

General contractor Hu Long Gui says only a fool would give workers contracts — and then be on the hook for insurance and other employee benefits.

HU LONG GUI (voice of interpreter): Workers don't know they're entitled to contracts. And they don't realize the benefits.

Case in point: a 41-year-old migrant woman whose last name is Guo. She once sewed shoes at a nearby factory and made $3 a day. When she quit, though, the boss skipped out on her last paycheck.

MS. GUO (voice of interpreter): Bosses, they do what they want. If they want to pay you, they will. If they don't want to, they won't. I mean, they're the boss, they have all the power. What are you gonna do?

Now Guo and the masses are not exactly pounding their fists, demanding "there oughta be a law." In fact, many earn more than they ever did back in their villages.

But leaders in Beijing are worried. They're crafting a labor contract law to give workers some basic protections.

Corporate lawyer Alex May says it's part of a wider campaign for social stability. China's wealth gap is widening, and the fear is the working class will grow increasingly resentful and unruly.

ALEX MAY: I mean, there are people getting rich, and it's not exactly subtle here — and there's no shortage of Mercedes and BMWs. There's a tremendous amount of poverty as well.

The question is, how do you craft a meaningful law in a place where many people selectively abide by the laws to start out with?

Liu Cheng of Shanghai Normal University says the key is to hit the bad employers where it hurts — in their wallets.

LIU CHENG (voice of interpreter): China has no tradition of the rule of law, which makes penalties against offenders critical. If the price of breaking the law is too low, it just encourages people to keep doing it.

Professor Liu considers this the most important law when it comes to labor rights in China. And he's mad, 'cause he thinks corporations are trying to kill it.

CHENG: Especially American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. I think AmCham Shanghai is crazy.

He says the American companies are being supplied by domestic Chinese sweatshops, and they want to keep it that way.

AmCham Shanghai declined to talk to us. But a separate group, the U.S. China Business Council, did.

BOB POOLE: Well the U.S.-China Business Council is not lobbying against the labor contract law.

The council's Bob Poole says his group just wants to make the law fair — to weed out its "adverse impacts." For instance, the current draft makes it harder to hire temp workers.

POOLE: And many foreign enterprises and domestic enterprises use them in retail shops, and short-term assignments and special projects. So in effect, if you discourage short-term or part-time labor, you limit the opportunities for that part of the workforce.

For union groups, this has turned into an international issue. A rallying cry on behalf of 700 million Chinese workers — that's a quarter of the global workforce.

Last week, the Teamsters head, James Hoffa, came to China to try to boost conditions and salaries here. The theory goes that would make American workers more competitive with Chinese workers.

JAMES HOFFA: Are we raising the tide that raises all boats? Whether it is in Asia or whether it's in North America. And I think ultimately that's the test.

The proposed labor contract law is expected to pass as early as next month.But it may take much longer for Chinese workers to start exercising their rights. It'll be up to them to demand contracts from their bosses.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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