Old Town with New Men

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics24 Jun 2013Yedan Li

More than 80% of labour disputes in China are solved through mediation, but the processes do not eliminate the antagonism.

A Glimpse Into Life Stories in the World’s Factory – Part 3 on labour disputes

For ethical reasons relating to the author’s ongoing research, the names of the town and the people in this article are all fictitious.

In the previous part of this blog, I discussed the locals and emigrant workers’ lives in the divided Qingyang town. What effect does this have on labour disputes and the process of solving them?

The Labour Contract Law, which came into effect in 2008, provides more effective protection of labour rights and lowers the litigation fee to 10 yuan (1.2 euros). This has directly led to a boom in labour disputes. Disputes, caused for example by work-related injuries, the termination of labour contract compensation, or disagreements about overtime pay are solved through a mandatory pre-trial labour arbitration procedure and courts. Despite these channels attracting most of academic attention in China, they only process less than 20% of all the labour disputes in Qingyang.

As labour judge Jiang stated: “The Qingyang court accepts 500 labour mediation cases per year within its jurisdiction, while local mediation centres solve 6000 cases. ”Taking the labour arbitration committee into account, more than 80% of labour disputes are solved outside arbitration committees and courts, in local mediation centres. Nevertheless, most of the disputes are trivial, the majority of which are leaving factory, overtime pay and work-related injury disputes. Take leaving factories disputes, for example; since emigrant workers are flexible in their working locations, they easily leave factories and find new jobs. As it is getting harder for factories to recruit new workers, they tend to keep part of their workers’ salaries as a “deposit” to hamper them from leaving. In these instances, local labour mediation centres contact the factory and tell them to return any deposits they keep from workers.

Even if they do solve a great number of disputes, the workers still hardly trust the local officials. This scepticism is not unreasonable. Mediation centres are sponsored by village governments which obtain benefits from renting. As a result, most workers believe the locals have enormous interests in keeping factories here, so they must show bias when dealing with disputes.

Are the mediators biased due to their economic interests? The answer is negative. Based on observation, common economic interest is just one layer of the relationship between mediation centres and factories. In fact, supervision and surveillance are also within mediation centres’ reach. If any factory does not comply with the regulations, then the mediation centre can report it to the labour bureau which will impose a fine on the factory. Besides, most mediators still want to solve the disputes from the workers.

So what causes the problem? Through observation, I find the problem does not lie in the mediation centres’ management objectives, client demands or bureaucratic interests, but in the antagonism between locals and emigrant workers. Accordingly, the effects of social policy are reconfigured within in the implementing institutions. Local mediators hardly care about the workers. Even if they have solved many disputes, made a large number of calls, and spent a huge amount of time talking to workers, they still did it in a typical local-vs.-emigrants way: with a rigid attitude, clear resentment, and open condemnation. Even if the mediators have solved workers’ grievances, the workers can hardly feel respected and released. The mediators do their jobs from a commanding position. As one worker says: “I don’t think the mediator was helping me, but only did his job.”

Workers’ complain that these top-down approaches may gradually develop into suspicion about the neutrality and fairness of the dispute resolution system. When conflicts pile up or disputes relate to many workers, distrusting the formal system, workers will not get their disputes solved by the established channels, but will join forces, not only to solve the disputes, but also to revolt against this divided town. Labour disputes, as a common concern of emigrant workers, have generated a desire for a bottom-up approach to solve the disputes. This has led to extreme demonstrations such as blocking the streets, sabotaging public property, physical violence, etc., calling for justice by grassroots standards.

On the other side, locals witnessing the demonstrations, rather than enhancing the fairness of the established channels and demolishing the invisible walls in the town, exercise more vigilance towards the newcomers and stick together even more. Locals can help the workers, can yield to their demands once, can pay compensation for them, but they do not want to embrace them. Locals are building a even more solid wall between the “insiders” and “outsiders” to keep the latter outside.

This reminds me of Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. In the novel, due to rumours that the area’s indigenous people, called “barbarians” by the colonists, are preparing to attack the town, the people are busy preparing for the attack. As the time approaches, many people have even departed, in the belief that the barbarians intend to invade soon. The Magistrate helps to encourage the remaining townspeople to continue their lives and to prepare for the winter. At the end of the story, by the time the season’s first snow falls on the town, there is still no sign of the barbarians.

The novel shares some similarities with the story in Qingyang town. Locals and emigrant workers are both waiting for the barbarians. However, the barbarians might not come from outside, but out of the fear and disrespect within. In fact, what the people should be preparing is the fireplace and thick protection for the winter to come, not the barbarians.