The Chinese government last week announced a series of measures to stabilize rapidly increasing food prices.
The new measures, which include boosting supplies of staples from government stockpiles, providing additional subsidies to needy families, and cracking down on speculators, clearly indicate the government’s concern over rising inflation and the effect it might have on social stability. In some regions of China, the prices of rice, cooking oil and some vegetables have doubled this year, creating a serious burden for China’s lowest paid workers and impoverished rural families.
Local governments across China raised the minimum wage by an average of 24 percent this year, but already those gains are being eroded by increases in the cost of food and accommodation. One of the main complaints of striking workers at Sanyo in Shenzhen this month, for example, was that the price of food at the company canteen had quadrupled immediately after their basic wage went up inline with the minimum wage.
Next month, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, will lead an official mission to China. Professor De Schutter is a strong proponent of the idea that fair wages are essential to ensuring equal and adequate access to food, and he will be particularly interested to discover whether or not disadvantaged workers in China can negotiate and obtain a decent wage.
CLB has already provided the Special Rapporteur’s office with research material that examines in detail how, why and when during the process of economic reform, the Chinese government effectively excluded workers from wage negotiations and allowed employers to unilaterally determine employees’ pay and working conditions. In addition, our research on the children of migrant workers shows how these children are much more at risk of malnutrition and disease than the children of urban residents. The children of migrants were in fact the main victims of the melamine milk scandal two years ago, simply because their parents could only afford to buy cheap domestically produced milk powder.
The health of migrant workers themselves is also at risk from poor quality food and water, as was shown last year when more than 50 construction workers in Beijing werehospitalized after drinking contaminated on-site well water. The appalling quality of the food at the factory canteen was one the main causes of the recent strike at Brother Industries in Shenzhen. Indeed, such complaints have been a regular component of workers’ grievance lists during strikes and protests over the last few years. See CLB’s research report Going it Alone: The Workers Movement in China 2007-08.
A specific focus of the Special Rapporteur’s upcoming visit will be the rights of agricultural and food processing workers. In China, most agricultural workers are part of a family unit but those employed on large-scale state farms in the northern regions have become vulnerable over the last few years as land is gradually sold off by profit-hungry farm managers, as CLB Director Han Dongfang discovered in an interview with a state farm worker from Inner Mongolia this June.
Because of its seasonal nature, workers in the food processing industry are often hired on a short-term, causal basis with little or no legal protection from exploitative employers. A group of migrant workers at a kelp processing plant in Shandong, for example, were forced to work 15-hour days, routinely underpaid, beaten and threatened when they sought payment. Moreover, the agricultural and food processing industries have in the past used, and most likely still are using, school children as labour under the guise of school “work-study” programs.
Unfortunately, the reason rural migrant workers and children have to endure such degrading work is because the situation in their home village is even worse, as thisunique and personal insight into the problems faced by young people in the Chinese countryside reveals.