The risk of workers’ unrest

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

Uwe Hoering, August 2021

“Who built the seven-gated Thebes?” asks Bertold Brecht’s ‘reading worker’, “in the books are the names of kings.” In the case of the Silk Roads, Chinese workers are at least mentioned, but in most cases with the comment that they were displacing local workers. Labour conditions and trade union rights, on the other hand, feature hardly at all in the debates on Chinese projects and companies. But here there are risks that could jeopardise the whole BRI venture.

There is nothing new in the fact that China’s global engagement is facing strong economic and political headwinds. Widespread protests against environmental damage from infrastructure projects, mining and dirty industries are also making waves. An example is the closure of a coal-fired power plant in Lamu, Kenya. Chinese state agencies try to counter such risks to the success of the Belt and Road and the national reputation of Xi Jinping’s flagship project with a wide variety of instruments. They include, among other things, more or less voluntary guidelines and regulations for companies operating abroad.

Unlike protests against environmental damage, against the displacement of local populations or against human rights violations, labour disputes are almost completely side-lined in the international debate, appearing at best as local news. But observers note a marked increase in regions with significant Chinese investment, from Bangladesh to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Zimbabwe or Namibia to Latin America. They are particularly common in mining and infrastructure projects, notorious for precarious working conditions. But also in factories, workers are increasingly resisting Chinese management – a warning signal for a government that considers itself socialist or even communist.

Silent migration

With China’s economic growth and ‘going global’ strategy, the number of companies abroad has grown by leaps and bounds. With this, they also grew a new formidable adversary, a class of workers learning to utilise their central role in the construction of the ‘seven-gated Thebes’.

At any given time since the middle of the last decade, there have been around one million Chinese workers abroad. Add to this an unknown number of illegal migrant workers, many of whom are gagged by recruitment agents or who travel on their own. Much like China’s domestic economic miracle, Chinese globalisation is based on a migrant working class, flexible, largely without any rights and subject to exploitation. In addition, there are also countless local workers in companies and projects with Chinese owners.

In this way, Chinese companies are helping to grow the number of male and female workers in many countries. They toil in mines and in the construction of railway lines in most difficult terrain, in low-wage sectors such as the textile or footwear industry, to which Chinese companies outsource production for Western industrialised countries. As in western capitalist companies, there are pressure on wages and dangerous working conditions, restrictions on trade union rights and high-handedness on the part of the management. Again, it’s all about business, market share and profit.

While jobs are created, the image of Chinese companies is particularly bad. They would withhold wages, suppress union activities and use subcontractors for workers in BRI projects. Different from Western industrialised countries, there are hardly any Chinese consumer initiatives or civil society organisations that would at least draw attention to the worst abuses.

Organisational challenges

Employees are often only loosely organised at best, domestic trade unions are weak, especially in Africa. Government efforts to lure investors severely limit their room for manoeuvre. Chinese companies are frequently located in special economic zones, such as those in Ethiopia, which are established and controlled by the companies themselves, and where trade unions and labour rights are curtailed. Therefore, most protests are isolated, spontaneous actions.

Nevertheless, in many cases workers do know how to fight back, although rather “subversively”, as Miriam Driessen has observed. By ‘voting with their feet’ they pit Chinese companies against each other, they undermine required work routines and thus challenge the authority of management, they use lawsuits in court and wildcat strikes to demand improvements in working conditions.

So protests and resistance can become a real problem for both individual companies and Beijing’s Silk Road strategy as a whole. They can become particularly effective when combined with protests by environmentalists, human rights organisations or with popular discontent over Chinese influence and arrogance.

The Beijing government thus finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. Low wages and uninterrupted production processes are key to any successful operation. Moreover, China’s reputation is at stake, all the more so as Beijing presents itself as an advocate of fairer South-South cooperation. In this fundamental conflict between officially enforced expansion efforts and the requirements of corporate social and environmental responsibility, the Chinese government and private or state-owned companies are responding in a manner similar to their Western counterparts – half-heartedly.

Half-hearted efforts

The Chinese authorities are making efforts to encourage state-dependent companies to follow sustainability standards through guidelines and regulations – although with limited success. Furthermore, the Australia-based Lowy Institute, for example, sees indications that companies are adapting to local conditions: “China and Chinese firms are listening to local requests, and adjusting their activities accordingly”. In particular, global players such as Huawei or state-owned enterprises with a visible public profile and thus vulnerable to reputational risks are striving to retain employees through good working conditions in a competition for skilled workers. But the situation seems to be much worse at companies in labour and wage-intensive industries such as textiles, which probably account for the bulk of the workforce.

At the same time, China’s government has so far not signed the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) core labour standards on forced labour, freedom of association and collective bargaining, despite being an ILO member. Even these weakened and limited ways of providing protection and entitlement rights would be valuable for the workers in the Silk Road countries.  The refusal may be because of Beijing’s distrust of international rules and regulations, especially if they would also apply to workers in China. Nonetheless, for a state that regards itself as socialist, this is an indictment.

Translated with (free version)

See also: The Chinese Worker Goes Abroad. Made in China Journal, Sept-Dec 2020

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