ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Chinese workers have it tough. This year, though, life could get a little better. The Chinese government has passed 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. Hired thugs recently stabbed a labor activist who was promoting the law.
We're going to hear from that activist in the second of two reports about manufacturing in China from NPR's labor correspondent, Frank Langfitt. Today, the battle for workers' rights.
FRANK LANGFITT: Huang Qingnan has spent the last few years teaching workers about their rights in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. He runs a small grassroots labor organization that get support from activists in nearby Hong Kong. But these days, Huang spends much of his time limping around his apartment in fluffy pink and blue slippers. He acquired the limp toward the end of last year. He rolls down his sock to show what happened.
It looks as if a hunk of flesh has been scooped out from his left calf. The skin is purple, the muscle dead. The result of a stab wound and a botched surgery.
Mr. HUANG QINGNAN (Labor Activist): (Through translator) Is my leg beautiful?
LANGFITT: That's Huang's black humor, appropriate to the circumstances. Huang had been distributing brochures to workers on the new labor law. One afternoon, two men came at him with knives on a crowded street.
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) After the first cut, I started fighting back. They cut me here, here.
LANGFITT: He points to his arms and chest. And here, they cut me on the thigh and on the back. People on the street just watched.
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) Later, I couldn't stand. I'd lost too much blood. I fell to the ground and the gangsters were still trying to stab me.
LANGFITT: Eventually, two friends who were with him threw bricks at the attackers and ran them off.
Who do you think is behind the attacks?
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) The factory owners. They are behind it. Because workers are fighting for their rights. But the factory owners don't want to lose their profits, so they use violence to fix the problem.
LANGFITT: Most of the factories here are owned by Chinese, Taiwanese, or people from Hong Kong. Now, you might expect Huang to paint a grim picture of workers' rights here, after all, he was maimed trying to promote them. But Huang is surprisingly upbeat.
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) I'm optimistic about the future.
LANGFITT: Why? I asked.
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) Because our workers, their consciousness is increasing. So I think it will be better.
LANGFITT: 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. It seems that way.
I first reported on labor here a decade ago. Back then, many workers were 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.
Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) We workers also know how to use violence, workers burn factories or stab bosses, this happen very often. This is not good for China's investment environment.
LANGFITT: 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.
Zheng Pingan works for a factory that makes metal clips for key chains sold in Malaysia. Talking to him at work was too sensitive, so I met him one night in an apartment with fellow workers off a busy street. Zheng had worked in a factory for eight years. But under the new law, if he's fired, he can't get severance for all those years he's worked, only for the time he works after he signed the contract. The law also says people like Zheng can negotiate the terms of their contracts, but Zheng says factory managers just ignore him.
Mr. ZHENG PINGAN (Factory Worker): (Through translator) They don't allow us to put anything on the contract, if we write anything on it, they refused to sign it.
LANGFITT: 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.
Ms. JIN CHUNYI (Factory Worker): (Through translator) He said he's afraid I'll get leukemia in the future.
LANGFITT: So several weeks after the contract law went into effect, the factory offered her two months' severance and told her to leave. With no money for health care or government aid, she refused to sign. Now, she's turned to one of the area's labor rights groups to help her fight the company.
Ms. JIN: (Through translator) Last night, there was a heavy rain and they wanted to kick me out of the dormitory. But I have no money and no train ticket home. How can I leave? Where can I go? I said if you want to kick me to the street, I'll kill myself in front of the factory's front gate.
LANGFITT: Even as people like Jin struggle to assert their rights, workers are pressing new advantages against their bosses. 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 recalls the days when eager workers flowed like water out of the countryside. He sounds wistful.
Mr. FU WEISHENG (Furniture Plant Owner): (Through translator) In the '90s, things were so good. At the time, we didn't need that many workers. You opened the gates, so many people. We even had to get guards. No, no. line up. I only wanted five people. There were 20 or 30 times more. They would fight for the work.
LANGFITT: But in the past few years, workers have found new opportunities in service jobs or businesses closer to their hometowns. If they don't like factory conditions, many just leave. Fu's plant has several thousand workers. Annual turnover is more than 100 percent. He tells me about 10 workers leave every day. He says those who stay demand more and more, like air-conditioning in July. With more laws, he thinks workers will only push harder.
Mr. FU: (Through translator) They think with the new labor contract law, I've got power. I'm going to ask the boss for things.
LANGFITT: Fu expects the law to increase his expenses by at least 5 percent. Other factory owners say much the same. But the impact the new contract law actually has depends on whether local governments really enforce it. And in China, that's often an open question.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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