People around the world recognize May 1st as International Workers’ Day. It’s a day off in most countries, with celebrations and activism for the common laborer. Workers’ Day grew out of the labor and union movements of the late 19th century. The bloody history as to why organizers eventually settled on May 1st for the Day was to commemorate Chicago’s Haymarket Affair. On May 4th, 1886, public demonstrations for an eight-hour workday led to police shooting and killing four protestors. A few years later and May 1st became a day of remembrance and further demonstrations.
In China, where the plight of laborers is still the centerpiece of socialist doctrine, Workers’ Day holds a special place. Interestingly, however, it’s not as special as it once was. Up until 2008, workers in China enjoyed three full days off for Workers’ Day. This year, as in the preceding seven years, the Government allows for only one day off of work. Perhaps the fight for workers’ rights in China is over so there’s no more need for an extended break. Are Chinese laborers living in a proletariat utopia where all their needs are met?
Well…yes and no.
As with many things in China, especially when you consider the workforce of 760 million, things aren’t so black and white. Although there have been a lot of improvements over the past several decades, there is still much to do.
Working Hours. Or Gosh, the Chinese Work a Lot.
Take working hours, for example. According to research conducted by Beijing Normal University, the average Chinese worker clocks between 2,000 and 2,200 hours a year. That equals about 9 hours a day. Not too shabby considering working in excess of 14 hours a day was the norm during China’s period as manufacturing center of the world. How does this compare, though, to the rest of the world?
Remember that these numbers are averages. For countries in the developing world, like Mexico and China, real hours are likely much higher due to excessive working hours in factory settings. Although figures are hard to come by, tangential evidence shows factory practices allow upwards of 80 hours a week. During Apple’s Foxconn scandal, studies showed workers’ average hours were 60 per week.
Working conditions in China, while not the envy of the world, are a world away from where they were only ten years ago. White-collar employees in major cities now sit in ergonomic chairs in their LEED certified high-rise buildings. Even blue-collar workers in the country’s expansive factories have access to better food, housing, and amenities. Granted, the reason behind offering these services was primarily to attract and retain workers in China’s notoriously turnover-prone environment. Do the means justify the ends? Sure.
What about the individual worker that might not be part of a multinational corporation? The small holders and nearly 300 million migrant workers upon which modern China depends for growth are unlikely to be practicing international best practices when it comes to workplace health and safety.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Show Me the Money. No, Seriously.
One final area where Chinese workers are in better shape than before is through the payment of wages. Yes, you read that right. Even signing a contract with a company didn’t necessarily mean they were actually going to pay you. Sometimes, managers would just draw out the IOU for long periods of time (hoping, likely, the worker would get tired of asking), companies would hire dispatched workers and pay them little to nothing, or a factory would simply shut its doors without prior notice.
A series of protests in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan in recent years have put this issue front and center. Many factories, particularly those serving multinational clients, are acutely aware that wages should be paid on time and social security benefits available to all employees. This is not practiced, however, across the board. For example, a 2013 survey found that only 20% of construction workers were paid regularly. In Beijing, this number was closer to 5%. With cost of living skyrocketing across China’s major cities, withholding pay can spell disaster for those trying to make ends meet.
What’s to be Done?
It’s clear that improvements are being made. To reiterate, though, China’s workforce is gargantuan and raising it to international standards will take time. Shutting down ill performing, mostly small, factories and workshops is going a long way to fixing the issues. The coal sector alone saw a 30% drop in fatalities after officials shut down small operations in 2013. The same holds true for moves against crystal, textile, and tanning operations. Additionally, China has called out fair and equitable employment practices as an area of focus in the latest Five Year Plan. Combined with the increasing number of worker strikes (which total 1,002 since January, or about 8 strikes per day) and we’re likely to see less activism and more relaxation on International Workers’ Day 2025.