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Public workers demonstrate against privatization, and migrant workers fight super exploitation, but we hear very little about that in the West, says Prof. Yuezhi Zhao of Simon Fraser University

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to To Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

China is the largest manufacturer of goods in the world. From what I can understand, in a given year there are thousands of labor demonstrations, there is discontent over wages, producing for an unending Western appetite at the cost of their own basic needs. Foxconn–the labor protests against the Apple factory comes to mind.

So here to discuss some of this is Dr. Yuezhi Zhao. She’s professor and Canada research chair in political economy of global communications at Simon Fraser University.

Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Zhao.


PERIES: So, Professor Zhao, we have seen so much discontent in China over labor issues, but we really don’t understand what some of the underlying issues are that labor is facing in China. Let’s talk about that.

ZHAO: Yeah. Let me start with a little bit of historical context. As you’re aware, the Chinese state’s, you know, claiming itself to be a socialist state. And historically, Chinese workers did have, if not powerful, you know, a decent position within Chinese society. And, actually, much of the factory production was public-owned. So workers were actually–you know, have permanent jobs, that kind of situation. And as part of the economic reforms, what you have is what you just discussed earlier, that China became the workshop of the world, producing for the West, and with–much of the former state-owned sectors in industrial production were being dismantled. So some of the labor protests are not just workers protesting low wages; there are state enterprise workers, protests against privatization, against the loss of control of factories by the public sector. So that part, of course, has not gotten much coverage, media coverage, at all in the West.

But what we do where–and the Foxconn factory issue really dramatized the whole thing–is the plight and the super exploitation of migrant workers, mostly young migrant workers in factories that manufacture goods for the West. And again, the suicide of Foxconn workers became the rallying point.

And the irony, of course, is very clear. Here you are, factory workers making the most sophisticated, fancy computers, iPhone, for the rest of the world, who themselves were so desperate that they end up having to use basically /dæs/ suicide as their last means of communication.

PERIES: Professor Zhao, can you explain what you mean by migrant workers?

ZHAO: Yes. So migrant workers are the workers, young workers mostly, who came from the countryside and who do not have the official urban resident status in the cities. So these people basically are still considered officially, in terms of their status, household registration status, they’re still considered as rural population. But they end up going to the cities, especially the economic zones, to work.

And, of course, the reason is that because of China’s larger economic reform, the rural areas become unsustainable for the population. People can’t find a livelihood there. And so they end up leaving the countryside in massive numbers, hundreds of millions, and are going to the factories to work. And so these people are considered as migrant workers.

PERIES: So whether they’re private factories or public ones owned by the state, who negotiates the salaries and the conditions of work for these workers?

ZHAO: Well, it’s a very complicated situation. There are still some state enterprises where the workers will have their own official union, although the unions are not really involved in salary negotiation in the Western sense. But, for the massive working-class population, they really do not have much in terms of bargaining power, in terms of their salary situation. It’s very much determined by the factory owners. And in even worse situations, their salaries will not even get paid. So there’s a situation of unpaid salaries.

PERIES: What do you mean there are situations of unpaid work?

ZHAO: Well, factory workers will work for the owners, and then they were not being paid on a regular or a monthly basis. So they’re essentially owed salaries. And this sounds really outrageous in the West’s context, but it’s very common in China.

PERIES: Is that somewhat like indentured laborers, that they get food and a place to put their head down, and they work at the factory in exchange?

ZHAO: Well, it’s not strictly indentured labor either, because, yes, factories normally provide them with dorms and a very crowded place to stay, but mostly in terms of status, these workers are supposedly free agents. But sometimes workers, in order to get a job, they have to pay a deposit to the owner. And so it’s not indentured labor in the literal sense. But to the extent that they are not being–they’re not in an organizing situation to bargain with the owner, and there is no enforcement of labor rights. That is an issue, because in China, legally, workers are supposed to be paid. There’s no question about it. And also, there are channels for grievances, for example labor arbitration and all that.

But sometimes this kind of channels did not really work to the favor of the working people. So, for example, myself, I wrote a case where these worker were owed salaries by the factory owner, by a construction company, and he tried all kind of means, legal means, to get a salary paid, and in the end he didn’t get the salary and he end up basically trying to kill–actually, he actually killed a few of the foremen who he interact with to get his salary. So this kind of an issue [created (?)] a lot of social [consonance (?)].

PERIES: Professor Zhao, what kind of organizing is going on against these work conditions in China?

ZHAO: It’s complicated, because there are situations where workers try to organize kind of NGO kind of things, also try to organize worker support groups, which are in a gray zone, because workers can organize self-supporting groups that are not official unions. But, again, this kind of organization is also limited. And, of course, the government is also very sensitive against autonomous union organization, right?

PERIES: Alright. Professors Zhao, thank you so much for joining us today.

ZHAO: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Yuezhi Zhao is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Centering her research on media and democracy in Western and Chinese contexts, Dr. Zhao's books include Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity (coauthored), Media,Market, and Democracy in China:Between the Party Line and Bottom Line, and Communication in China: Political Economy, Power and Conflict. Dr. Zhao is also the founding director of the MA Double Degree in Global Communication at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.