Beijing on Barack Article

Workforce Transformation + Labor Rights

For all the media attention paid to the “China Price” and trade deficits, who are the American and Chinese workers caught in this debate? The following pages will take a look at the American and Chinese labor forces, as well as some aspects of both countries’ labor histories and laws. Before there was globalization there were workers. There still are, and they will continue to determine not just the wealth of a country, but more importantly, the health of its society.

Women Hold Up Half the Sky?

Many observers attribute Chinese women’s strong showing in the workforce to the legacy of Communism when Mao declared that “women hold up half the sky” and to a cultural legacy where women were not just encouraged to work, but were expected to do so. Chinese women were told that they can do whatever men can do, and the Communist government provided equal access to education.

However, women still bear the burden of family and child care, and are often channeled into low-paying jobs. With industrialization in the last few decades, the gender wage gap has also returned to China. In 2010, 70% of Chinese women earned on average 30% less than men for doing similar work; while American women earned 19% less than their male counterparts.

Critics of China’s low labor costs often point to the dismal working conditions for many Chinese laborers, and the lack of workers’ rights and protections. This situation is not unlike what American workers went through in the early days of industrialization when they fought for workers rights and higher wages. China still has much to do to protect its workers and enforce its labor laws, but when China passed a new Labor Law in 2008 to better protect workers from being dismissed without cause, a number of U.S.-based corporations (such as Walmart, Google, Microsoft, and Nike) opposed these reforms. Their argument was that the new laws would drive up their costs; their threat was to pull operations out of China. In the last few years, however, some companies such as Walmart China and Mary Kay (both listed by the Chinese edition of Fortune as 20 of the best companies to work for) have taken to offering robust benefit packages in order to retain employees.

Migrant Workers

Historically, migrant workers around the world have been seen as an important source of cheap labor. That is still true. They are often willing to take the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs that locals are unwilling to undertake. They are a moveable and expendable population without sufficient access to basic needs and services. A large part of the growth of both the United States and China has been due to the labor of migrant workers.


In the United States, the term “foreign-born worker” refers to persons who reside in the U.S. but who were born outside the country to parents who were not U.S. citizens. The term migrant worker has come to be linked with those who move from one low-wage seasonal job to another, like farm workers, or illegal immigrants with no valid work visas.
Migrant workers in China are people who work in places other than the towns of their household registration (hukou). The hukou is usually their place of birth or home village, and frequently they have not lived there for more than 6 months. After economic reforms in the late 1970s, migrant workers in China emerged as a social issue when millions began leaving home villages in search of work.


There were 24.4 million foreign-born workers in 2010, comprising 15.8% of the labor force. Hispanics comprise 49.9% of foreign-born labor force, Asians 21.8%.
In 2010, foreign born workers were more likely than native born workers to be employed in service occupations, in production, transportation and material moving, and in construction and maintenance occupations.
81% of all farm workers are foreign-born; 77% of them were born in Mexico. More than 50% are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Migrant farmworkers and their families live and work in all 50 states of the U.S. The average farm worker is only 31 years old.
Government data indicates that there were 221.43 million migrant workers in 2010 (in 1989, there were about 30 million). Chinese migrant workers are a big component of the Chinese labor force.
They are primarily people from impoverished regions in rural areas and Western regions who move to urban areas and crowd the more prosperous eastern and southeastern coastal areas looking for work.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions’ research shows that 77% of all manufacturing workers, 80% of all construction workers, and 33% of all service workers are migrant workers.


Median usual weekly earnings of foreign-born full time workers were $598 in 2010, 77.5% of a native-born’s salary ($771).
Average wage for hired farm workers = $11.13/hour or $11,000 a year. Few farm workers receive benefits like Social Security, worker’s compensation, Medicaid or food stamps.
Average hours worked = 41.7hr/week
The average monthly income for migrant workers in 2010 was 1600 yuan ($248) compared to the national urban average of 2,687 yuan ($417).
Average working hours: 11 hours a day, 26 days a month.
As migrant workers do not have the same hukou status as locals, many employers do not provide them with the same benefits as are offered to local workers. Consequently, they are subject to institutional discrimination, including low wages, and harsh working and living conditions.


In 1966, the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee led by Cesar Chavez merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee led by Pilipino farmworkers to become the United Farmworkers of America (UFW). The UFW organizes agricultural workers.
In 2003, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) included migrant workers in the union. According to ACFTU’s figures, 88.55 million migrant workers were union members in 2010. The ACFTU is primarily a welfare provider for migrant workers, focusing on claiming back wages, providing financial assistance and helping workers arrange transportation home for the Chinese New Year.


In the last few years, several cities and states such as Arizona and Georgia passed strict anti-immigration laws, the results of which have included severe labor shortages in the states’ agricultural industries.
In the last decade, the government has been relaxing the hukou system by granting temporary residency to migrant workers, and advocating the legal rights of migrant workers under the 2008 Labor Law. Much still remains to be done, including enforcing laws that protect migrant workers, abolishing the hukou system, and ultimately reducing rural-urban economic disparity.

Know Your Unions


153.9 million
815.3 million (2010 est.)


The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 grants most U.S. workers the right to join or form unions and to take action on union business, including strikes. Agricultural workers, railroad and airline workers are covered by other laws.
The Trade Union Law of 1992 and 2001 allows for workers to join or form trade unions, but these unions are all under the control of the All Chinese Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) whose mandate is to follow the leadership of the Communist Party. Workers have no explicit right to strike though strikes are not prohibited.


In 2010: 14.7 million or 11.9% of the workforce (12.3% in 2009). 7.6 million of the 14.7 million were public sector workers (36.2% of the public sector work force) while 7.1 million were private sector workers (6.9% of private sector workforce). –BLS.
According to the ACFTU, the number of union members at the end of September 2010 had reached 239 million, with a membership rate of 74.7%. There are 88.547 million migrant workers in ACFTU.


In the U.S., workers must organize to form a union. Once this is accomplished they can collectively bargain for rights on wages, benefits, and hours. With a battery of national labor laws, unionized workers have effective means to organize, bargain, maintain and secure their interests.
In China, all workers—in manufacturing, construction, and service jobs—have the right to become members of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. The ACFTU is a “mass organization formed by the Chinese working class on a voluntary basis.” But workers at the grassroots level have little power to negotiate for their own interests. Workers outside of ACFTU who have sought redress for rights violations have found themselves detained, intimidated, beaten up or sent to prison.


The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest voluntary federation of America’s unions with 12.2 million members. The AFL was founded in 1886 and merged with the CIO in 1955. The AFL-CIO has 56 individual unions under its aegis. The Change to Win (CtW), a federation founded in 2005, has 5.5 million members, and is a coalition of four unions comprising largely service sector unions. The AFL-CIO is more concerned with global trade issues while CtW focuses more on organizing service sector employees in jobs that “cannot be outsourced.”
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only legal trade union center in China, with 239 million members. Chinese law does not allow for other trade unions to exist. The ACFTU was founded on May 1, 1925, dissolved several times since then, but reconstituted in 1978. It has 1.72 million grassroots trade union organizations. The ACFTU is controlled by the Communist Party, but union officials largely see their roles as coordinating labor relations and mediating between companies and workers in “collective consultation” in an attempt to promote “social harmony” rather than explicitly representing the interests of workers. Critics see the ACFTU as being toothless with little independence, power, and interest in representing the interests of workers, but supporters point out that there are increasingly more progressive unions in southern China who believe that their key role is to represent workers. Still others point out that although China’s labor legislation is often poorly enforced, it is on record and will be increasingly supportive of workers’ rights.


American unions work to increase membership in the face of declining union participation (only 7% of workers in the private sector are organized). In the spring of 2011, public sector workers in seven states in the Midwest, were the target of state legislatures who blamed theunions’ high pensions and benefits costs for their budget deficits. Union supporters, led by those in Wisconsin, saw it as an attempt to do away with all collective bargaining rights. In the auto industry, unions have been negotiating with the car companies, agreeing to limit their demands in return for the companies creating jobs in the U.S.
A spate of worker suicides at Foxconn, and a series of strikes at Honda factories in southern China in 2010 where angry workers demanded an increase in wages, better working conditions and an independent trade union, suggests that Chinese workers are becoming more aware of their rights. Indications are that they are less willing to tolerate perceived mistreatment, and more likely to voice grievances against their employers. The demand for an independent trade union by Honda workers has not received any direct response from the government. Whatever the ACFTU proposes for future trade unionism is still under the strict leadership of the ACFTU and the Chinese Communist Party.

Worker's Rights--Looking Ahead

In the last 30 years, as American manufacturing jobs migrated to cheaper countries like China, the AFL-CIO had been a leading anti-Chinese voice in the U.S. It worked to oppose permanent normal trade relations with China, and sought to block China’s entry into the WTO. The AFL-CIO tended to blame plant shutdowns, capital flight and corporate downsizing on Chinese workers themselves, rather than on corporate trade policies or the U.S. government’s support of free trade regulations across nations. In the last decade, however, there has been some rapprochement between unions in the two countries. In 2001, the UCLA Labor Center, led by its director Kent Wong hosted the first formal delegation of Chinese trade unions. In 2002, Wong arranged for a U.S. labor delegation led by Andy Stern, the president of Service Employees International Union, to meet with the top leaders of the Chinese unions. This marked the opening of relations by trade unions in the U.S. and the ACFTU. In 2007, Anna Burger of Change to Win (CtW) visited China, ending a decades-long boycott of China by U.S. Labor groups. Today, the AFL-CIO continues to debate its international strategy; to focus more on corporate abuses and international enforcement of labor rights, and not a policy of blaming China and its workers.

The New American Workforce

With unemployment rates of more than 9%, stagnant and decreasing wages for the American middle class, there is no doubt that the U.S. workforce is undergoing a massive transformation. As the country moves from a manufacturing economy to a primarily services and information-based economy, American workers are having to adapt to changing notions of jobs and work. The last few years have seen a rise in the number of freelance workers not tied to a traditional job or company. Whether Americans are the vanguard of a new global workforce remains to be seen. The challenge for the American government, employers, and employees is to create a new system that promotes not only economic growth for the country, but also protects the rights and wellbeing of its workers.

Agricultural 1850s
No workers' right
Industrial (Manuafacturing)1930s
New Deal guaranteed workers’ rights. • Based on linking all rights (wages, benefits, pensions) to a single job/company. • Traditional Employer-Employee relationship. • Gold watch upon retirement after 25 - 40 years. Service/Information - last 30 years
Rise of the Independent Workers/Freelancer/Contractor/Consultant/Self-employed. • Simultaneously holding multiple jobs and working for different employers. • No longer traditional employer-employee relationship. • Workers’ rights no longer secure or protected. • Estimated to be 1/3 and growing of American workforce though the Labor Department stopped keeping statistics after 2005. • In need of new laws and support system to protect workers’ rights.

© Copyright 2012, U.S./China Media Brief Program, UCLA Asian American Studies Center