By Jenny Chan, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and The International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Labour Movements
This article is an excerpt from Jenny Chan’s chapter “Worker Organizing in China: Challenges and Opportunities”, in Robert Ovetz (editor), Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives , Pluto Press, 2021
June 20, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In China, as in many countries, rights are enshrined by law in such a way that workers are expected to act as “firefighters” who self-enforce their rights by sounding the “fire alarm” at labor departments and courts to force senior officials to uphold labor standards. If workers sound the alarm by filing cases and the government consistently enforces worker protections, employers may anticipate the risk of a dispute and avoid the problem. But if enforcement is lax and punishment is mild, because local governments often prioritize attracting investment rather than enforcing laws and regulations, employers will likely ignore the letter and spirit of the law, and conflict will be prevalent. A persistent pattern is that although desperate workers sound the fire alarm, serious problems such as nonpayment of wages and abuse by management continue and remain unresolved. “At the heart of poor working conditions,” Eli Friedman and Ching Kwan Lee show, is the fundamental imbalance of power between workers and employers at the point of production.
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