Labour rights groups and workers call for action on China’s employment agencies

Dozens of labour rights groups, workers and activists across China have signed a submission to the central government calling for action to end the widespread abuse of the employment agency system in China that affects more than 60 million workers.

Spearheaded by the Panyu Workers’ Service Centre in Guangzhou, a total of 24 organizations and 103 individuals signed a submission entitled “promote collective bargaining, phase-out agency labour and straighten-out labour relations” (推行集体谈判、淡出劳务派遣、理顺劳资关系).

The submission was made on 6 September in response to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security’s (MOHRSS) call for comment on its proposed Regulations on Agency Labour, issued last month.

Signatories included other well-known groups such as the Laowei Law Firm and the Spring Wind Labour Dispute Service Centre in Shenzhen, Yirenping and Little Bird in Beijing, and the Xiao Chen Hotline in Qingdao. Individual signatories included pneumoconiosis rights activist Zhang Haichao as well as dozens of ordinary workers who are at the frontline of labour agency abuses.

The joint-submission noted that the use of agency labour in China was spinning out of control, and called on the government to shift its focus towards promoting a traditional and stable contract-based employment system, establishing collective bargaining as the basic mechanism for regulating labour relations, and gradually phasing out the use of agency labour in China.

The submission pointed out that agency labour should be merely a supplement or an adjunct to a contract-based employment system, providing flexible and short term labour as and when needed. However, it noted, the system is being heavily abused in China today with employers hiring agency workers for full time positions instead of hiring regular employees. According to a report released by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions back in 2011, there were more than 60 million agency workers in China even then, most of who were employed in state-owned enterprises and government entities.

The submission argued that the government’s top priorities with regard to regulating agency labour should be to maintain a healthy labour market, enhance employment flexibility, and guarantee the worth and dignity of individual workers.

Moreover, the government should ensure that all agency workers obtain unemployment benefits when they are idle or between work placements, the submission said.

The proposed MOHRSS Regulations on Agency Labour follow the implementation of the revised Labour Contract Law on 1 July 2013, which was supposed to tighten up the loopholes in the original law related to agency labour and restore the principle of equal pay for equal work to the workplace in China.

The Panyu Workers’ Service Centre was the first grassroots non-governmental organization promoting labour rights to be set up in China’s “factory of world” in southern Guangdong in 1998. It was described in 2010 by the Southern Metropolis Daily as a symbol of the “beginnings of worker self-help” (劳工自救开始).

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