Financial Times: Better workplaces require better consumers

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

By Rahul Jacob

7 April 2013

When Li Wan, then a cashier at one of Walmart’s outlets in the booming city of Shenzhen in southern China, attended a two-day collective bargaining seminar in Hong Kong, she never imagined she might become an exemplar of progress in labour rights in China.

Ms Li, a softly spoken 37-year-old, was on sick leave at the time for a back injury. Photos from the seminar at the Centre for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong were spotted by the government-backed All China Federation of Trade Unions, which sides with employers in China. Ms Li believes union representatives informed Walmart. “The company then called stores, asking managers to figure out who was in the photo,” she says. Ms Li was fired for “dishonest conduct” by Walmart in 2011.

In September last year, Shenzhen’s Intermediate People’s Court ruled that her termination of employment was illegal and ordered Walmart to pay Rmb48,636 ($7,800) to Ms Li, who now works elsewhere and prefers to use a pseudonym. Walmart declined to comment on the case.

These are encouraging times for those who champion workers’ rights in China. Han Dongfang, who heads China Labour Bulletin, a workers’ advocacy group in Hong Kong, says collective bargaining is beginning to take root. The municipal federation of unions in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the two largest cities in the export powerhouse of Guangdong recently said it supported such initiatives. To outsiders, this might seem as uncontroversial as the Pope saying he believes in God, but in China official unions typically act as an arm of management.

At Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer and maker of Apple’s iPhones, the Fair Labor Association, a US-based workers’ advocacy group, is preparing workers to elect independent trade union committees for the first time early next year. Having spent some time interviewing workers in the alleyways near Foxconn’s factories in order to avoid being hassled by posses of security staff, I remain unconvinced that we are about to see a new dawn in workers’ rights. The handful of recent cases in which provincial trade union officials sided with workers remain the exception.

On March 29, for instance, a dispute between a few employees at Foxconn’s Longhua factory in Shenzhen and management about a proposed move to another facility became so heated that the workers congregated on the roof of one of the buildings. Because Foxconn’s factories became notorious after a string of workers’ suicides in 2010, rumours spread on China’s febrile blogs that workers had committed suicide by jumping off a building. Foxconn says the employees stayed on the roof “until law enforcement officials arrived at the scene” and that the dispute was resolved peacefully. This is progress, but a genuinely constructive environment for collective bargaining ought not to require calling in the police.

Improved workplace conditions in China and elsewhere around the world will come about only if consumers put more pressure on companies to demand better standards from suppliers.
Auret van Heerden, who heads the Fair Labor Association, which was brought in by Apple to improve conditions at Foxconn after the contract manufacturer gained infamy in the wake of the suicides, says “consumer pressure is vital but it tends to be quite episodic”.

In Bangladesh, where a fire killed 112 workers last November at a factory making clothes for US and European retailers, Mr van Heerden says many garment factories “visibly” do not comply with fire safety standards: “Quality inspectors go in, but the buyers are looking the other way.”

An activist accused a Walmart official of leading the opposition to proposals to invest in safety improvements during an industry meeting in Bangladesh in 2011, but Walmart has said her remarks were taken out of context and its costs would include the costs of meeting safety standards.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a pair of jeans on a whim that cost about $13. But what I saved in money, I gained in guilt. Consumers who can afford it now have guilt-free alternatives. They can buy brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, whose owner PVH has agreed to help pay for fire safety improvements in factories in Bangladesh. Or they can check websites such as those of the Clean Clothes Campaign, which lists retailers with poor safety records in the developing world.

Businesses should promote more of these options. The people making the world’s clothes, shoes and iPhones deserve at least that much.

For more information on the Walmart case see CLB's report: Labour activist sues Walmart for wrongful dismissal and wins.

Back to Top

This website uses cookies that collect information about your computer. Please see CLB's privacy policy to understand exactly what data is collected from our website visitors and newsletter subscribers, how it is used and how to contact us if you have any concerns over the use of your data.