Chinese workers have it tough, but this year life could get a little better. On Jan. 1, China's central government instituted a new law requiring businesses to give workers written contracts and pay compensation if they're fired.
Companies say the law will raise costs, and some may be fighting back — literally: Labor activist Huang Qingnan, who was promoting the law, was stabbed in broad daylight. He says hired thugs were behind the attack.
For the past few years, Huang has been teaching workers in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen about their rights. He had been distributing brochures on the new labor law to workers late last year. One afternoon, two men came at him with knives on a crowded street.
"After the first cut, I started fighting back," says Huang, who added that he was cut on his arms and chest.
Huang lost so much blood after about a minute that he fell to the ground. Eventually, two friends who were with him threw bricks at the attackers and chased them away.
Today, Huang spends much of his time limping around his apartment in fluffy pink-and-blue slippers. A hunk of flesh is missing from his left calf, the result of a stab wound and a botched surgery.
So who was behind the attack?
"The factory owners," Huang says. They "don't want to lose their profits."
But instead of painting a grim picture of workers' rights here, Huang is surprisingly upbeat.
"I'm optimistic about the future," he says. "Because our workers, their consciousness is increasing."
Progress in Labor Rights Movement
China is a communist country in name only. Instead of creating a workers' paradise, the regime has exploited cheap labor to build a trade powerhouse.
But Huang says these days more workers are fighting back.
A decade ago, many workers were just happy to have a job — even if it meant risking a limb. Now, they routinely stage strikes, demanding higher wages, overtime pay and improved safety.
Leaders in Beijing say they created the contract law to protect workers and build a modern system for industrial relations. Huang says they also just want to keep the peace in factory towns. Labor violence, he says dryly, "is not good for China's investment environment."
On paper, the new law is generous. In requiring compensation for laid-off workers, it provides more security than most Americans enjoy.
But some workers already complain that the law is too weak.
Questions of Enforcement Surround New Law
Zheng Pingan has spent eight years working for a factory that makes metal clips for key chains sold in Malaysia. But under the new law, if he's fired, he can't get severance for all those years he's worked. He can only get compensation for the time he works after he signs the contract.
The law also says people like Zheng can negotiate the terms of their contracts, but Zheng says factory managers just ignore him.
"They don't allow us to put anything on the contract," he says. And "if we write anything on it, they refused to sign it."
Jin Chunyi's situation is even worse.
She worked with toxic chemicals in a printing ink factory. Recently, she learned she has a low white blood-cell count. Her boss has already spent more than $130,000 on a fellow worker who got leukemia.
Several weeks after the contract law went into effect, the factory offered Jin two months' severance and told her to leave. With no money for health care or government aid, she refused to sign. She isn't sure what will happen next.
"Last night, there was a heavy rain and they wanted to kick me out of the dormitory," she says. "But I have no money and no train ticket home. Where can I go?"
She threatened her bosses: "I said if you want to kick me to the street, I'll kill myself in front of the factory's front gate."
Dwindling Supply Means Laborers Have More Leverage
Even as people like Jin struggle to assert their rights, workers are pressing new advantages against their employers. Until recently, China seemed to have an endless supply of cheap labor. And for factory owners, it was a buyer's market.
Fu Weisheng runs a furniture plant in southern China's Dongguan City. He sounds wistful as he recalls the days when eager workers flowed like water out of the countryside.
"In the '90s, things were so good," he recalls. "You opened the gates, so many people. They would fight for the work."
But in the past few years, workers have found new opportunities in service jobs or businesses closer to their home towns. If they don't like factory conditions, many just leave. Fu's plant has several thousand workers. Annual turnover is more than 100 percent — about 10 workers leave every day.
Fu says those who stay demand more and more. And, with more laws, he expects workers will only push harder.
"They think with the new labor contract law, 'I've got power. I'm going to ask the boss for things,' " Fu says.
He expects the law to increase his expenses by at least 5 percent. But the impact the new contract law actually will have depends on whether local governments will really enforce it. And in China, that's often an open question.