Article (March-2021)


Limitless misery of workers in China

H.L. Kumar

Designation : -   Advocate, Supreme Court

Organization : -  New Delhi


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Opacity thy name is China. When the whole world is asking and getting transparency in every field, it is China which keeps all its activities closed from the gaze of the world. Behind all the shining roads and buildings and tawdry products, there is an inferno that stinks which has made the lives of the workers a hell. Some twenty-five years ago, a delegation of the trade union leaders had gone to meet to the then Indian Union Labour Minister P A Sangma, who had just returned from China. Those trade union leaders were living in a make-believe world as far as China was concerned and were waxing eloquent about her. However, when the late Sangma told them about the miserable conditions of Chinese workers, who had no social security and were deprived of even basic amenities of life, they were stunned with shock. Now the whole world has come to know that China is not only the butcher of human rights, but she is also the worst violator of the workers' rights.

There is a China Watch Labour Group, which has made a study on the labour conditions on China's labour industry and it has said in its report that 'the world of toys is a heaven for children, but it is a world of misery for toy factory workers. The conditions of workers working in the shoe or other factories are no less horrible. What we find 'made in China' also tell the agonies and afflictions of the workers who make them.

An American journalist Amelia Pang has written a very revealing book titled 'Made in China' which provides the glimpse of the horrendous state of living of the workers in a textile factory in Huaibei. The story begins with a woman in Oregon who while cleaning out her storage, finds a letter that falls out of a sealed package of Halloween decorations. The letter is written in Chinese and English, and explains that he and other prisoners are being forced to manufacture these items for 15+ hours a day. The woman takes the letter to the local newspaper, and the book then follows the life of the writer of the letter while also sharing detailed facts and histories of the forced re-education camps for political and religious prisoners that have become entangled in the manufacturing process.

Slavery will be a mild word to describe the condition of the workers. A worker Falun Gong is tasked with making decorative paper mushrooms for export. He has to rub the paper with his fingers to get the desired fake mushroom feel. In the process, his fingers get scraped. Cuts get infected but he keeps working as he has to fill an impossible quota of 160 mushrooms per day. Other workers are no better than Falun. Our spending habits put brands on a perpetual search for ways to shorten the time between design, manufacturing, and distribution but pressure on companies to endlessly optimize is fundamentally unsustainable.

The writer of the book has named some online retailers like ASOS and Fashion Nova, which introduce new styles at a furious pace, as examples of this hyper-speed trend. This, in turn, increases the pressure on Chinese factories to deliver flexibly and cheaply, driving them to look for money-saving labour solutions, like those found in laogai prisons.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Pang explains, consumers are hard-pressed to hold the means of production in our heads while making a purchase. "We feel pleasure if the price is low. We feel pain if the price is too high. When we are standing in front of the gentle glow of a computer screen, we don't feel the agony of the workers who made our products as deeply as we feel our desires."

The Xinjiang government in China has offered incentives to textile companies willing to open factories near the camps. One recent report estimated that 80,000 ethnic Uighurs have been forcibly sent to factories in other parts of China. In any case, the miserable life of workers is not going to be over because their targets will always remain high. In any case, the world community will have to raise voice against the excruciating slavery through which the workers have to undergo in China.

There is no freedom of association to form trade unions and non-governmental labour organisations are closely monitored by the government who carry out regular crackdowns. Multinational corporations and national factory owners take advantage of the anti-union climate, the workers' lack of awareness of their own rights. Migrant workers find themselves trapped in appalling working conditions. Most of these workers are women earning extremely low wages. Living conditions are poor with up to six people sharing small, cramped dormitories. Women migrant workers, who are primarily employed in factories, rarely, get maternity leave, and with no childcare facilities and working weeks of more than 70 hours, many are forced to send their children to live with family in the countryside.

H.L. Kumar - Advocate, Supreme Court, New Delhi