WE-News: Highlight of Present Labour Rights Situation in South China

Worker Empowerment E-newsletter (issue 1/2007)
24 April, 2007

WE-News: Highlight of Present Labour Rights Situation in South China


Research on the Labour Situation of Migrant Workers in the Construction Sector of Shenzhen
Among the large population of migrant workers who have come from poor rural areas and have gone to Shenzhen for job opportunities, quite a number of them work in construction sector. They build the icons of modern cities, such as high-rise buildings, roads, factories, etc. However, the migrant workers in the construction sector experience a lot of difficulties in the labour process, such as unpaid work, lack of employment evidence, poor occupation safety and health protection, difficulty in getting proof of occupational injury, etc.In mid-2005, Worker Empowerment (WE) worked with a community worker centre in Shenzhen, doing research on employment protection, occupation safety and health protection, and the workers’ understanding of the legal protection and administrative interference of the local government. Through this research, WE aimed to locate solutions to the problems and facilitate the self-protection of legal right of the migrant workers in South China.There were 82 valid questionnaires collected from the workers in construction sites, and 8 questionnaires from injured construction workers in the hospitals. All the interviewees were male, most of them aged from 25 to 49, and all worked for less than half year in the construction site where they being interviewed. These were some of the basic findings:
1. The Basic Living Conditions in the Construction Sites

All the workers were living in the construction sites they worked in. The workers’ responses did not reflected high demands regarding living conditions and food; in most cases, they felt that they were impossible to change and a shelter was enough.
2. Strength of Work, Wage and Working Hours

Most of the workers reported that the job was physically affordable. They basically had no holidays and had to work for long shifts. 76.8% of them had to work 30 days a month; 84.1% of them work 9-12 hours a day. Many workers perceived that it was a ‘normal’ length of working hours, and only 35% of the workers interviewed were able to receive overtime work wages. Furthermore, none of them received the special allowance for construction workers according to the law (e.g., for working in high temperatures).

Payment of wages was highly irregular in construction sites. Most of the workers (42.7%) could only get paid when the project finished; others (20.8%) mainly were paid by the end of the year, while some others were paid every season or after completion of one floor of construction. In some cases, the workers did not even know when they could be paid. The extremely long wage period adversely impacted on the workers, and showed that the protection of workers is very weak under such an unhealthy wage system.

3. Occupational Health, Safety and Protection

Among the 90 interviewees, 20% of them experienced or were experiencing occupational injuries. The protection varies in small-scaled construction sites and construction companies: for small sites, 80% of the workers have no safety measures, only 10% of workers reported that they had a safety helmets or safety nets; for those working for construction companies, around 60% of them could obtain safety helmets or safety nets, while some others had hand gloves or safety ropes.

Even working in such a workplace that lacks protection, over half of the interviewed workers did not feel that the protections at the construction sites were insufficient. This reflects that the consciousness of occupational safety of workers was very weak. At the same time, not many interviewed workers joined the insurance scheme, especially at the small-scaled sites, with only 5% of workers joining the private insurance scheme, and having the insurance fee deducted from their wages directly.

4. Legal Protection, Monitoring and Execution

According to the research, 29% of the interviewed construction companies’ workers said that there were safety or quality inspections at the sites, but only 2.5% in the case of workers at small-scaled sites. This showed that inadequacy of safety inspection was a significant problem, as well as the lack of transparency and involvement of workers.

Most of the workers did not realize which Government Departments were responsible for the construction site inspections. When there were violations to their rights, workers tended to negotiate with the boss directly even though only 25% of them received any compensation afterwards.

Of the workers interviewed, 48.8% knew that there was improper behavior or incidents going on at the sites, and they knew that they could report them to the Labour Department; however, most of them (65.9%) never thought of reporting it, because they did not feel their right were being violated, were worried that it would take a long time, were afraid of getting into trouble or did not think that it would be useful.

5. Legal Knowledge of the Workers

Most of the workers did not know much about their legal rights. Only 11% of them heard about the Labour Law before, and only 6% could mention some right they were entitled to, such as standard working hours (8 hours per day). The others were ignorant of the law protecting them.

6. The Situation of Injured Workers

Among the workers, 20% had experienced or were experiencing occupational injury. The research found that the perception of occupational injury of the workers is different from the general understanding. They believed that it was ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable’ to have some ‘slight injury’ and they tended to handle the ‘slight injury’ themselves. Therefore, there were a lot of hidden occupational injuries in the industry.

Among the 8 injured workers interviewed in the hospital, more than half of them came from a construction site without any safety measures. It reflected that lack of safety measures was the significant factor in the level of occupational injuries. Injured workers also had to work for 12 hours a day, without safety measures, insurance, or inspections from the Government departments.

Among the 8 hospitalized workers, only one of them received wages and allowance for food, medical services and nursing; among the 7 workers who had no wages, 2 did not even have nursing allowance, and 1 had neither food nor medical service allowance. For those who worked for construction companies the remuneration was relatively better, because the companies had insurance. For those who worked at small-scaled sites, they even had to apply for proof of occupational injury on their own, hence, leading to a longer time for settlement.
7. Recommendation

Amend the Construction Law, to respond to the urgent problem of lack of labour protection for construction workers; Strengthen the monitoring and regulation of the construction sector, including safety and quality inspection, and respect andimprove workers’ right to know and participate in it; Regulate the wage system and payment according to the specific situation of the industry; Reinforce the occupational safety and health at the construction sites monitoring the implementation of social security and the follow-up of injured workers; Review the subcontract system in the construction sector.

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