The public outcry in China that followed the discovery of a slave labour camp at a brick kiln in Shanxi province has prompted a massive crackdown on kilns and small mines in the region. By June 17, 45,000 police officers had raided some 8,000 mines and kilns in Shanxi and Henan, freeing 591 slave labourers including 51 children. The official All China Federation of Trade Unions has vowed to bring rural labourers under the protection of grassroots unions. Local governments have agreed to pay compensation to all freed labourers, and Premier Wen Jiabao has personally ordered an in-depth investigation into the use of slave labour, promising that all perpetrators will be punished. As of June 17, 168 suspects had been detained.
The scale of the government and official trade union response reflects the extent of their neglect over the last decade, and their failure to protect the rights of workers. Slave labour camps are merely the worst aspect of an employment system where rural labourers have little option but to work in low-paid, dangerous and often lethal conditions. As China Labour Bulletin revealed this month in “A Journey into the Black Heart of Shanxi” there has been widespread corruption and collusion between local government officials and mine owners that has led to the proliferation of thousands of small-scale unlicensed mines in the province in which on average at least two miners die each year.
This state of affairs is tolerated by the higher levels of government until tragedy strikes or members of the press or public expose the true horror of the situation. Indeed, it took an online campaign by parents searching for abducted children in Henan and Shanxi, and a petition addressed to Wen Jiabao pleading with the prime minister to; “save our children who have been abducted by devils and are living in hell,” before any action was taken.
Mr Wen has a reputation for personally intervening in cases involving ordinary people, such as the worker Xiong Deming whose wages were seriously in arrears. After meeting Xiong in 2003, the prime minister launched a high profile campaign to solve the problem of wage arrears but the systemic problems remain in place today. Likewise the current crackdown on slave labour will make a lot of noise, and grab television and newspaper headlines for many weeks, but it is unlikely to get to the root of the problem.
As CLB columnist Cai Chongguo pointed out in his paper “Why Can’t Regulations Safeguarding Labour Rights be Implemented?” the key problem is the gross imbalance of power between employers and the state on the one side and the workers on the other. The government has sought to address the problem with legislation and periodic high profile crackdowns but as Cai Chongguo explained this approach could create even more problems in the future.
“There is a huge imbalance of power between labour and management within Chinese enterprises… To date, the government has not adopted any measures to give workers the power to organize unions, and redress this imbalance. The only plans so far have been to intensify the efforts of law enforcement agencies. The result is that not only is there no improvement in the enforcement of these laws and regulations, but, even more serious, the idea is being instilled and reinforced that the Chinese worker is always a pitiable figure, one that requires saving, and that workers are some sort of “disadvantaged group” requiring charity. Because of this, many people believe that workers in China cannot protect themselves or even control their own fate. Without the assistance of the government, or the employer, or some social group, they are lost. Chinese workers are falling into a vicious spiral where the more protected they are, the weaker they become.”
It is difficult to imagine a more pitiable sight than that of children rescued from barbaric slave labour camps. It can help make the rescuing government look like a hero but it does very little to help address the underlying systemic issues that give rise to slave labour camps in the first place.