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conceptual mapping >  economy: production and consumption  > Falling through the Floor

Falling through the Floor

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> China Labour Bulletin Research Series: No.2

According to the International Labour Organization, the concept of decent work lies at the heart of any fair and equitable national development strategy, and the standards for defining it should rise as economies grow and prosper. Moreover, decent work goals depend upon the maintenance of a minimum "floor" level of workers’ livelihood - defined as respect for fundamental labour rights and the provision of sufficient work, income and basic security. Local minimum wages provide one concrete indicator of the requisite floor level; workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights provide another. In September 2006, the ILO launched an "Asian Decent Work Decade" aimed at linking the goal of decent work with the global poverty reduction agenda.

In this survey report by China Labour Bulletin, young Chinese women workers tell us in their own words about their arduous experiences of trying to earn a decent living in the boomtowns of the Chinese economic miracle today. Women workers from the countryside form the bulk of the migrant workforce, now numbering well over 100 million, that has driven China’s unusually high urban economic growth rates over the past 15 years. But as this report shows, women migrant workers in Dongguan and other key cities of the Pearl River Delta have consistently been denied their fair share of the economic rewards - indeed, they are increasingly falling below the ILO-defined minimum standard for decent or socially acceptable work. Compelled to work illegally long overtime hours, allowed only one day off work per month and earning monthly wages that often barely exceed the legal minimum, they lead working lives of unremitting tedium and exhaustion.

Based on a series of in-depth interviews with 30 rural migrant women working in privately owned factories in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, the report highlights the wide range of unethical and unlawful practices used by employers to extract the maximum amount of effort from such workers at the lowest possible price. Also addressed is the failure of local government agencies and the official trade union, through their lack of proper monitoring and enforcement of China’s labour laws, to protect this vulnerable majority of the migrant workforce.

Concerning the serious labour shortage currently affecting many of China’s major cities: the report concludes that the government’s continuing denial of freedom of association for workers has had a structurally adverse impact on the operation of the free market itself in southern and coastal China, and that the labour shortage is unlikely to end until all migrant workers - including women - are given both the right and the means to negotiate a fair and equitable price for their labour.

date of on-line publication : 24 October 2007

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