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China has a 5,000-year history of civilization. We decided to have a brief review of some key dates that have marked China's history, which will allow us to get a better understanding of what is happening today in China.
Our first focus will be on the period from 1966 to 1976, known under the name of "Cultural Revolution". Under the lead of Mao Zedong, the young people of China rose up against what they called the "Four Olds" : old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Mao Zedong, used this wave of communist movement to bring the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in charge of the country.
The revolution generated a big chaos for the Chinese people and the country as a whole. The economy was collapsing, objects associated with China's pre-revolutionary past were liable to be destroyed, religion was banned, etc.
Most importantly, for the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution, schools in China did not operate; this left an entire generation with no formal education.
The sufferings for the chinese population was enormous.
At the end of the 1970s, the CPC had learned painful lessons from the "cultural revolution" and made an important decision to shift the focus of national work to socialist modernization, and adopted the policies of reform and opening-up.
The second focus of China's recent past will be on the "Democracy movement" in 1989.
During the spring of 1989, a peaceful protest movement had been carried out by students and civilians in China's major cities over a period of two months. More than a million people demanded a democratic reform and a halt to China's escalating corruption problem.
The troops of the govermnent opened fire on unarmed students and civilians who resisted the suppression. It is said that more than 2000 people died and around 500 were imprisoned, but the official numbers of dead, imprisoned or disappeared people is unknown because the Chinese government refuses to carry out a investigation or accounting of the events of June 1989.
Today, China has a major political and economic importance in the contemporary world. It's phenomenal economic progress has made China one of the most important players in world economy. Its growing economic power has strengthened its political authority in Asia and the world.
China is still widely perceived as a country which does not, or only scantily respects human rights. This poor reputation does not just refer to Communist China in general and the Cultural Revolution, but has been carved into our brain since the violent crackdown of the 1989 democracy movement.
Whether we are outspoken critics of China as one of the worst human rights offenders or feel it is better to praise China for its progress than to nag on the shortcomings, it is clear that the issue is of major importance and that the future of China and human rights are interdependent.
Tiananmen Square 1989 China
Laogai - forced labour prison camps
As we have seen in our introduction, China is still in their first steps of becoming a democracy in western standards. It's recent history is marked by communism, where human rights were not always respected. One example to illustrate this are the forced labour prison camps known as "Laogai". We will see how these camps are directly or indirectly linked to western corporations and how products made by people in those prison camps under very poor working conditions end up in our hands.
First of all, let's have a closer look what a "Laogai camp" exactly is:
Laogai, which translates from Mandarin to mean "reform through labour", is the Chinese system of labour prison factories, detention centers, and re-education camps. Mao Zedong created the system in the early 1950s, modelling it after the Soviet Gulag, as a way to punish and reform criminals in a manner useful to the state, producing thought reform and economic gain. The Laogai system is still in place today and continues to deprive individuals of basic human rights. An individual's mere association with groups unpopular with the People's Republic of China (PRC) government can result in the individual being sent to a reform institution in the Laogai system, through a process that deprives the person of due process rights. Once inside the Laogai, prisoners are subject to cruel and degrading treatment and oftentimes tortured. These human rights abuses violate both Chinese and international human rights norms.
The Laogai system generates revenue for the Chinese Communist Party. By forcing prisoners to labor, the prison system earns millions of dollars in profits. While profitable prisons may sound good, such a system creates an incentive to incarcerate increasing numbers of potentially innocent individuals. (prison system pdf)
Production for both domestic and international consumption is the central economic function driving China's Laogai system. To facilitate the sale of Laogai products abroad, prisons often have two names: their official prison name, such as Huaiji Prison, and a commercial enterprise name, like "Guangdong Xiangda Enterprise Company". Under the guise of a legitimate commercial enterprise, the prison can produce goods and conduct business - setting up contracts and establishing trade partners - just like any other corporation.
(LAOGAI RESEARCH FOUNDATION, BUILDING ON THE BACKS OF PRISONERS)
Laogai camps are involved in many aspects of production. Products may be wholly produced, partly produced or assembled, or merely packaged by Laogai prisoners. However, regardless of the degree of interaction with the product, these products are illegal to import under U.S. law. Laogai camps manufacture products for all sectors - from food goods, such as pickles from "Ganbin Prison" in Jiangxi Province, to steel structures from "Baoding Prison" in Hebei Province.
Once products have been manufactured and the Laogai camp has partnered with an import-export company, the products easily make their way through the supply chain to the U.S. and other countries throughout the world.
As we mentioned earlier, under U.S. law, products produced in Laogai camps are illegal to import to the USA. As it seems this law is widely not respected by big multinational corporations as cites this article:
"Chinese made goods ranging from electronics to toys and clothes are daily sold in mass marketing retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, K-Mart, Target, Lowes, and dozens of other U.S. corporations. Cheap goods from Communist China increasingly line the shelves of the NAFTA marketplace under marquee product trade names that bear no relationship to the Chinese slave labor that manufactured, produced, or otherwise assembled the goods."
In Europe, there isn't any regulation that forbids the importation of such goods as cites this newsletter on September 2010 from the European Parliament.
"Banning imports made in Chinese labour camps
Parliament will discuss how to stop imports into the EU of products made by prisoners in Chinese labour camps. MEPs will also ask the Commission how it intends to raise this issue in talks with China.
Laogai is a system of forced labour prisons in China that has been condemned by MEPs in several reports and resolutions. Most Laogai camps, some 500 of them, are also economic undertakings with commercial company names. The Unites States has banned the products of such companies from its market. However, the EU does not yet have equivalent legislation."
Recently, the broadcaster Al Jazeera pointed out the Laogai camps by launching a documentary called "Slavery: A 21st Century Evil".
Shortly after this, the international broadcaster Al Jazeera was forced to close its offices in China.
In China, as we saw with the example of the Laogai prisons, basic human rights can be closely related to the labour rights. We will now have a closer look on the evolution of labour rights in China and how they are (or not) respected by international corporations.
The period from 1949 to the mid-1950s was the period when China's socialist legal system was first set up. In this period, China promulgated the Common Program of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, in the character of an interim constitution, and some other laws and decrees, which played an important role in consolidating the new-born political power, maintaining social order and reviving the national economy.
The concept of a labour law is very recent in China. Its first comprehensive labour law went into effect on January 1. 1995, and represents the regime's most recent efforts to grapple with problems brought on by the transition to a socialist market economy.
The PRC Labour Law extends a number of specific benefits to workers. These include « guarantees » respecting equal opportunity in employment, job selection, compensation, rest, leave, safety and health care, vocational training, social security and welfare, and the right to submit disputes to arbitration. Hiring units are required to fulfill various labour requirements in the areas of hours of employment, rest, leave, worker safety, healthcare and protection for female and juvenile workers. Juxtaposed to these benefits are a number of obligations that workers must honour, including the duties to fulfill work requirements, improve vocational skills, carry out work safety and health regulations, observe labour discipline and vocational ethics. The law also contains various enforcement provisions, by which local Labour Administration Departments are charged with supervision and inspection of labour relations.
The People's Republic of China has seen many changes in the structure of its economy and in the treatment of workers employed by economic enterprises. While the Labour Law of the PRC represents a major step toward articulating legal norms on the protection of workers rights, it still reflects the imperatives of Chinese government policies of economic growth and the Chinese Communist Party's concerns with political control. Thus provisions on contract labour and the role of trade unions appear to serve the interests of the Party/state to a greater extent than they do the interests of Chinese workers. The new law also faces significant impediments to full implementation. Nonetheless, in the context of the transition to a socialist market economy the new labour code does represent significant progress in the ongoing challenge of managing labour relations in China.
In 2008, the government introduced a Labor Contract Law that rolled back some of the "laissez-faire" approaches to the workforce that the government introduced in the 1990s. This new law abolished the system of at-will employment for most full-time employees and required employers to provide employees with written contracts. Since 2008, the government has also revisited its policy of tight control over the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). While all unions must still be approved by and affiliated with ACFTU, it appears that the government is allowing the ACFTU greater authority to advocate for the rights of workers than it did just a few years ago. That said, the government continues to imprison workers who advocate for the formation of independent trade unions.
In China, 2010 was a year of significance in the development of labour-related legislation. It saw the 60th anniversary of New China's first Trade Union Law and the 15th anniversary of the country's first Labour Law. It was also a year that witnessed a significant increase of labour disputes in the country, including the scandal of workers suicides in Foxconn (Apple's contract manufacturer for many products) and the strikes in Honda China. It was against this background that an international conference ''Chinese Trade Union and Labour Law: Past, Present and Future' was organised in August in Beijing to critically review and assess these laws and their implementation as well as other relevant issues concerning labour in China and to identify the prospects for Chinese workers in future.
Even though China has progressed in elaborating better labour rights for their workers, the "Human Rights Watch", in their "China World Report 2012" pointed out several problems:
"Lack of meaningful union representation remained an obstacle to systemic improvement in workers' wages and conditions in 2011. The government prohibits independent labour unions, so the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the sole legal representative of China's workers. A persistent labour shortage linked to changing demographics-official statistics indicate that nationwide job vacancies outpaced available workers by five percent in the first three months of 2011-has led to occasional reports of rising wages and improved benefits for some workers.
In January a government survey of migrant workers indicated that the "hukou" (household registration system) continued to impose systemic discrimination on migrants. Survey respondents blamed the hukou system, which the government has repeatedly promised to abolish, for unfairly limiting their access to housing, medical services, and education. In August 2011 the Beijing city government ordered the closure of 24 illegal private schools that catered to migrant children. Most found alternate schools, although an estimated 10 to 20 percent had to be separated from their parents and sent to their hukou-linked rural hometowns due to their parents' inability to secure suitable and affordable schooling in Beijing.
1) HEG Electronics - Samsung's Chinese Supplier Employs Underage Workers
With the example of "HEG Electronics" we will try to illustrate that the labour rights in China are in some cases not respected which leads to poor working conditions for their employees.
China Labor Watch, is a non-profit organisation based in New York whose work it is to assess and re-evaluate labor conditions in more than 200 manufacturing factories supplying for transnational companies across industries ranging from furniture, stationary and shoes to electronics, garment, and toy industries.
In August 2012 they published a report which points out the following working conditions in "HEG Electronics":
Child Labor Abuse Hiring Discrimination
Labor Contracts, Wage Rates, Reward and Punishment System
Appalling Cafeteria and Dormitory Conditions
Lack of Safety Education and Labor Protection
The problem was addressed in the European Parliament the 17. September 2012:
"Infringement of normal labour standards in some Chinese factories
According to reports in the China Labour Bulletin, HEG Electronics, a company that assembles devices such as DVD players and mobile phones for famous companies in the electronics industry, is violating normal labour standards.
Investigators from this journal, who worked undercover at the plant in June and July, identified seven working children, all under the age of 16. The number of child labourers discovered by the investigators would appear to suggest that child labour is a common practice in the plant.
Moreover, the report describes the working conditions as harsh, with tasks that were sometimes dangerous and wages well below the legal minimum. Working hours, as reported by the investigators, were between 11 and 13 hours per day, six days a week. Each employee has about 30 minutes for lunch; workers are not allowed to take any time off and sometimes they are forced to work even when sick. In previous months, in other Chinese factories, too, similar situations had been found, with difficult working conditions, low wages and forced overtime.
What measures will the Vice-President/High Representative therefore suggest to ensure that there is adequate monitoring of compliance with the rules on working conditions and the protection of workers' rights in China? "
Furthermore, a website called "stop samsung - no more deaths!" describes the correlation between Samsung and his subsidiary HEG Electronics:
"Samsung provides fixed assets and other equipment to the Chinese contractor, the survey said. More than 50 Samsung employees are posted to HEG production facilities."
Samsung is claiming that they ignored that their supplier HEG Electronics was employing child labor and that they led two inspections that led to nothing :
"However, Samsung pleaded ignorance of child labor at its Chinese contractor. "Samsung Electronics has conducted two separate on-site inspections on HEG's working conditions this year but found no irregularities on those occasions," Nam Ki Yung, a Samsung spokesman, told Bloomberg News. Samsung said it would send an investigation team to HEC, according to a tech news site, The Verge."
On the HEG Electronics you can find the following statement :
"Heg always adhere to the people-oriented concept, so that development for staff development rely on employees, corporate efforts to the fruits of development to benefit the general staff.
Employees are our most valuable resources and wealth, and the healthy growth of the employees is the success of our cause and an important foundation for enterprises to obtain sustainable development and protection. We always adhere to the people-oriented, advocating equality and non-discriminatory employment policies to respect and protect the legitimate rights and interests of employees and cherish the staff of life, health and safety; respect for labor, respect knowledge, respect talent, respect for creation, major decisions and important production operating activities focus on the mobilization of all the staff's enthusiasm and creativity, and focus on improving the quality of staff. Enterprise development innovations to benefit the general staff efforts to achieve the organic unity of the enterprise value and the value of employees.
Enriching the cultural life of the employees, the company is active in a variety of cultural and recreational activities such as basketball, soccer, table tennis, and staff in his spare time to relax, keep fit, cultivate character, enhanced teamwork for employees to create a good the casual environment conditions."
If you put into contrast HEG Electronics declaration on their website where they describe their employees as their "most valuable resource and wealth" and the report from the organisation China Labor Watch which points out that the company is exploiting child labor, you can deduce that there is a big gap between what is the "official labor law" and what some companies are doing on an everyday basis.
1) KPMG China - Caring Company Award
KPMG China has been presented with the Caring Company Award by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service for tenth consecutive years (from 2002 - 2012). The award recognises private companies in Hong Kong which demonstrate good corporate citizenship. It is complimented by the Outstanding Partnership Project Award in 2006 and 2008, which honours KPMG's partnership with the Society of Community Organization (SoCO) for supporting the children in need and Youth Business Hong Kong (YBHK) for mentoring the entrepreneurial youth on starting up and running their businesses respectively.
The mission of the Caring Company Scheme is to build a caring community by encouraging corporate citizenships and strategic partnerships among the business, public and social service sectors in Hong Kong. Awards are presented each year to recognise organisations with outstanding involvement in corporate social responsibility programmes.
2) William E. Connor & Associates Ltd. - One of World's Most Ethical Companies
Behind some of the biggest household names in luxury fashion and home accessories is a name the average consumer may not know, William E. Connor & Associates Ltd. (www.weconnor.com). The Hong Kong based global sourcing company, representing elite worldwide brands, announced today that it has been recognized by the Ethisphere Institute, the leading U.S. business ethics think-tank, as one of 2012 World's Most Ethical Companies. Connor is the first Asia based company in the sourcing industry to receive the award.
Meeting demanding scrutiny, Connor secured a hard-earned spot on the list by employing and maintaining upright business practices and initiatives that are instrumental to the company's success; benefit the communities in which the company operates; and raise the bar for ethical standards within the industry. Connor's business model is unique among its global competitors - the company does not hold an equity interest in any factory, nor receive any financial benefit from factories. Connor's earnings are generated only from client commissions. Connor has the highest standards in the industry, ensuring their clients - and ultimately, consumers - receive apparel, decorative items and furniture, manufactured under responsible, fair working conditions.