In the Shadows of Olympians: Unorganized Workers in Beijing

As China's economy stagnates and the New York Times and Strike Map report burgeoning labour movements, the lives of Chinese workers draw greater scrutiny. This extract from Scattered Sand by Hsiao-Hung Pai examines these lives; the 'scattered sand' of Pai's book refers to the migration of 200 million workers from rural provinces to urban centres that have been integral to China's economy. The extract evidences the precarity of these workers, who live without residency status and at the mercy of their employers, to quote Pai the picture painted 'picture bears little resemblance to that of the footloose globe-trotter moving around the world in a cocoon of global Chinese capitalism and culture'.

One summer evening, I was taking a walk in east Beijing, just seven metro stops away from Tiananmen Square. I wanted to avoid the underground rush hour and just walk for a while. Along a dusty main road packed with private cars and cabs, I happened to walk past a metal-built shack – so tiny it was barely noticeable – crammed in between two hotel buildings. I was curious and looked through the cracks in between the metal. I was amazed by what i saw: a middle-aged weary-looking couple sitting inside. I went round to the other side where a metal door stood open. The couple stood up immediately as I said hello.

'Do you live here?' I asked.

They nodded. The shack was actually more the size of a shed, the ceilings no higher than the couple's heads. How could anyone live in this cramped space, no more than three square metres, with no facilities at all? It was completely dark inside. No electricity. By the dim street light that shone through the cracks, I saw beds made of bricks at one end of the space. There was nothing to keep them warm in the winter apart from the metal skin of the shack and possibly the gas stove in the corner, which I later found out they used for cooking.

I asked where they'd come from. 'Guangyuan city, Sichuan province,' the woman replied, starting to chop up vegetables next to the wok on the stove. They introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs He. They worked for a construction company in Beijing on a different project each year. This time, they'd been here for six months, working on a building project in this area, along with fifty other Sichuanese recruited by a labour contractor from their hometown. The other workers were housed in a basement dormitory two blocks away. Mr and Mrs He's metal shack had been provided by the same contractor as a 'favour' because they were a couple and 'needed some privacy'. Typically, migrant construction workers are given poor-quality housing by employers, many of whom charge a fee for it. These accommodations are always overcrowded and often lack running water, just like Mr and Mrs He 's shack.

'Come in, you can come in,' Mrs He said politely, smiling. I stepped indoors and stood there watching her carry on chopping vegetables, as there was no place to sit down. Mr He sat on his brick bed, resting. Mrs He said that none of the workers on the project had seen a contract. They knew nothing about their entitlements or rights under the labour contract law. They were to be paid at only the end of the year – a common practice, despite the fact that it violates a legal requirement that construction employers pay workers each month in full.

'We are lucky enough. At least we think we 'll get paid – because we were paid on our project in Beijing last year. Some people from our hometown weren't. In that situation, there was little they could do. You can't take your boss to court if you yourself don't have residency status in this city, which most of us folks don't. And if you can't provide contractual proof of your claims, you can't sue, can you?'

Besides, there are the heavy legal costs, impossible for migrant workers to deal with. Arbitration alone would cost a worker 420 Yuan (£38), and average monthly wages for migrant workers in Beijing are no more than double that amount. 'The building project will last till the end of the year, and we will return home for the Chinese new year. Next spring, we will be back in the capital and placed on another project – I think it will be just like this one, with similar conditions. I don't think it will be anything different, because this was what we got on our first job in Beijing, last year.'

Mrs He told me she was cooking for the team of builders. This was an extra job for her. When the food was ready, she had to take it to them in the other building. I saw that she was busy, and said good-bye to them.

Outside, I thought about Mr and Mrs He's fatalistic mindset. With no one to turn to and no resources to fall back on, they felt they must simply accept whatever was given to them. But I also knew about the sharp increase in the number of labour disputes in recent years (see previous chapter) – sharp even according to numbers from the Ministry of Public Security, which were probably conservative. The China Labour Bulletin wrote about workers' growing awareness of their collective power:
Workers proactively sought better pay levels, better working conditions, shorter working hours, and payment of overtime. They were no longer prepared to suffer in silence or simply walk off the job as they had done in the past, but instead developed their own positive, innovative and usually effective solutions to their problems ... Workers have seen plenty of evidence from media reports, blog posts and word of mouth that strikes, protests, roadblocks and sit-ins are effective methods of achieving their goals, and they have greater confidence in their ability to defend their own interests by such means.

The first modern unions in China were formed in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 1918, in a country carved up by imperialist powers and warlords. Prior to this, guilds, established by the old handicraft industries, were the main form of workers' associations, developed during the Qing dynasty. Guilds were based on trade loyalty and internal solidarity among workers and employers, and were an obstacle to the development of organisations such as unions that operated in the interest of workers as a class. Although guilds were still prevalent in 1918, the growth of large-scale industries had shaped a new landscape of working-class organization. The concentration of these industries brought a con- centration of the working class. As youths from the countryside migrated in large numbers to work in major cities, the system of province-based guilds and other old forms of organization, such as secret societies, eroded. According to Jean Chesneaux, author of Chinese Labour Movement 1919–1927, china's proletariat in the late 1920s consisted of about 1,500,000 factory workers and 1,750,000 other industrial workers, and like the migrant workers today, they largely originated from the countryside, to which they were socially and economically tied. But widespread anti-imperialist sentiment quickly politicized many of these workers, despite their lack of experience in organizing. Since the May Fourth demonstrations in 1919, workers' movements had always been based on two fronts: anti-imperialist and anti-warlord. This focus was evident particularly in 1922 and 1923. When the May Fourth Movement began, workers were still the rearguard, rallying behind students and intellectuals for the 'development of national industries' and the 'promotion of national products'. During boycotts of foreign goods, factory workers were encouraged to increase Chinese production. Soon, these workers began to realize their own collective strength and started to organize spontaneous strikes across the country. A distinct characteristic of their growing militancy at this time was solidarity: strike actions often spread very quickly, from one industry to another, across regions. By April 1927, according to the CCP, 2.8 million workers had joined trade unions.

Since its founding, the CCP had actively worked to raise the consciousness of the nascent working class. A main focus of the party's work was to combine 'the propagation of socialism' with the organisation of a labour movement. Each of the CCP's local branches was running a workers' publication, such as Shanghai's Labour Field (Laodongjie) and the Voice of Labour (Laodongyin) and Workers Monthly (Gongren Yuekan) in Beijing. Schools were also set up for workers, to raise their awareness of the need to form trade unions.

On May 1, 1925, the second National Labour congress was held in Guangzhou, and proclaimed the founding of the all-china federation of trade unions (ACTFU), the first National Trade union organization in china. 

This was the heyday of Chinese labour activism, when workers were organizing their own boycotts and strikes against imperialism. By early 1927, more than half of the CCP's 58,000 members were workers, according to Arif Dirlik, a noted scholar of twentieth-century Chinese history. Their militancy and strength frightened Chiang Kai-shek, the leader at the centre of the Moscow-directed anti-imperialist united front between the Kuomintang and the CCP. He tried to curb the power of the labour movement, using the ACTFU to impose restrictions on workers' self-organization. In 1927 he led a massacre of tens of thousands of workers and trade unionists. After that, workers no longer played a significant role in the CCP's rise to power.

The ACTFU today is open to anyone who wishes to join – a worker files an application, which is reviewed by his trade union group and then approved by the trade union committee. In theory, ACTFU membership guarantees the right to vote and be elected to union positions and the right to take part in the running of trade union affairs. However, in reality, ACTFU is largely a 'paper union', playing a bureaucratic role and colluding with employers. It depends on the support of the enterprises to meet its membership quotas. In most cases, the nomination of union representatives is based upon negotiations between the trade union bureaucracy and the employing businesses, which jointly vote for the commit- tee, who then elect a chairperson. Workers are left out of the entire process. Today, the ACTFU, with a membership of 134 million people, is both the world's largest trade union and one of its least effective. Because strikes are illegal in china, workers must take industrial action spontaneously, without the involvement of trade unions. As citizens, they are not permitted to form their own civil organizations. In fact, 80 percent of existing civil groups in china are illegal.3 the other 20 percent, the legal civil groups, are mostly subdivisions of government departments (guakao), and 'exist in between cracks'. Other civil groups that enjoy legality and resources are societies, poetry and calligraphy societies, and the like, formed by retired cadres. These are the only organizations that get registered easily and enjoy abundant fundin

Because strikes are illegal in China, workers must take industrial action spontaneously, without the involvement of trade unions. As citizens, they are not permitted to form their own civil organizations. In fact, 80 percent of existing civil groups in china are illegal. The other 20 percent, the legal civil groups, are mostly subdivisions of government departments (guakao), and 'exist in between cracks'. Other civil groups that enjoy legality and resources are societies, poetry and calligraphy societies, and the like, formed by retired cadres. These are the only organizations that get registered easily and enjoy abundant funding.

In November 2011, when I was trying to find out about civil groups in Xinjiang, the Uighur autonomous region, I spoke on the phone to Dr Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation (ICO), China's first NGO on behalf of migrant workers, founded in 2001 in Shenzhen. From the beginning, the organization was refused offcial NGO status; Dr Liu had to register it as a limited company. In 2003 and 2004, he applied again for an NGO registration and was again rejected, although the ICO had funding amounting to one million Yuan (partly from UC Berkeley) as well as a venue. Dr Liu later attempted to register it with the labour Bureau in Shenzhen, and was turned down. In 2005, he applied once more, this time emphasizing the ICO's cultural role, stating its intention to set up a library for migrant workers. Once again, his application was rejected.

Dr Liu has given up the fight for NGO registration, although he has encountered many difficulties running the ICO as a limited company, a status that limits its operations to research, training and counselling, rather than advocacy, and poses particular difficulties with support and funding. He and his colleagues have always run the ICO with a 'crisis consciousness', knowing it could be closed down at any moment.

Dr Liu said that there was a strong demand in China for the formation of civil groups, as the opening up of the market had created many social conflicts. 'But the government has not been willing to loosen up its grip,' he told me. 'It fears that civil society organiza- tions will grow beyond the control of the state. It fears the power of the people.'

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