Liu Shinan

Workers must be paid more than lip service

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-23 07:22
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The Time magazine's announcement that "the Chinese Worker" was one of four runners-up for its Person of the Year award and its use of eight photographs of workers at a factory in Shenzhen have taken us by surprise. "Why does a US media outlet, which has not been so friendly to China, credit Chinese workers thus" must be the question on the mind of every Chinese.

Time cited the economic growth of China during the past year and the role it has played in stimulating the recovery of the global economy for choosing the Chinese Worker. "Who deserves the credit," the magazine said, "above all, the tens of millions of workers who have left their homes, and often their families, to find work in the factories of China's booming coastal cities."

This explanation prompts me to think: How many of us thought about the workers when we talked proudly about the feat of "maintaining an 8 percent growth rate"? And how long have we stopped the practice of focusing the spotlight on ordinary workers, who used to be lauded as "the leading class" and "the masters of the nation"?

Though we have abandoned the political terminologies of yore, workers are still regarded - officially and theoretically - as the social group that deserve the most respect and best care in our bid to "let all Chinese people become wealthy". Reality, however, is different.

Take the migrant workers in the "booming coastal cities". Some of my fellow villagers work there in garment or shoemaking factories or in restaurants or on construction sites. They have told me that they could earn about 2,000 yuan a month on average - quite a handsome amount compared with what they would otherwise make back home farming. But they have to pay a great price to earn that amount.

They are made to work 12 hours a day. They get a meager, or even zero, pay during their "apprenticeship" or "trial" period. Constant "recycling" of apprentices has become a favorite way of some employers to employ labor nearly free. Plus, defaulting on wage payment has become a common practice among many employers.

True, the government has taken steps to improve the situation for migrant workers and the Chinese media have given much exposure to laborers' working and living conditions. But migrant workers are still the least paid group despite having to do the toughest jobs.

The People's Daily published an article earlier this month discussing the huge disparity in the country's wealth distribution. It said workers' wages account for a miserable 10 percent of the total operational cost of an enterprise in China, while it is 50 percent in developed countries. Ours is a socialist country. How come we seem to be doing worse than capitalist countries in remunerating the working class?

Economists, sociologists and politicians may have a myriad of theories to explain the phenomenon. Economists tell us that it is normal for a capital investor or owner to take a larger share of an enterprise's profits than the workers. My question is: How large the disparity has to be before it is considered "abnormal", or will it be deemed abnormal at all?

The People's Daily also reported that laborers' pay makes up over 55 percent of the total national income in developed countries, while in China it is less than 42 percent and the rate has been falling continually. Should it not be an alarm for all of us who care about social justice and fairness?

The problem is not in business enterprises but rather in the wealth distribution system of the country. It is high time serious, concrete measures were taken to change the system fundamentally. Workers' pay must account for a much larger share of the national income than it is at present. This may be an arduous task. And nobody other than the government can accomplish it.

I hope to hear fewer stories of billionaires paying 100,000 yuan each to take part in a matchmaking party in Beijing, while a worker in Shenzhen stabs himself in the abdomen to get his unpaid wage from the company that had fired him. Both events were reported in China's media yesterday.