Editorial: Labour rights groups will stumble if pushed to run too soon
Editorial | Civil Society | Corporate Social Responsibility | Labour and Migration | Subscription-only Content
With foreign direct investment topping USD 60 billion in 2004 and textile export markets booming after the scrapping of an international ‘multi-fibre agreement,’ China’s role as the world’s major workshop seems secure for some while yet. Tina Qian’s feature article in this issue reflects some of the human cost of supplying labour to fuel this economic boom.
Meanwhile, a global ‘corporate social responsibility’ industry continues to gather pace. Barely a week passes without some new conference or publication on the topic, and CSR research centres multiply even faster than did civil society think tanks in the 1990s.
China is grasping the new discourse extraordinarily fast. Print media have been exploring the CSR concept, and several delegates to the March sessions of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress pronounced on the need for corporate responsibility in building a ‘harmonious, socialist society.’
Some observers remain sceptical. For example, Australian National University researcher and long time China watcher, Anita Chan, told a recent symposium at Fudan University that, despite a decade of corporate codes of conduct and workplace inspections, real wages for factory hands in the Pearl River delta region have actually fallen, whilst arrears of unpaid wages have risen.
Similar scepticism helped scupper a ‘Global Alliance for Workers and Communities’ that ceased operations at the end 2004 after spending around USD 14 million on worker health programmes in Asia. Largely bankrolled by Nike and Gap, the Alliance was regarded by international labour activists as a distraction from the real issues of wages, worker representation and free collective bargaining. In its four-year lifespan the Alliance never achieved the wider legitimacy it needed.
In terms of legitimacy as well as access, when it comes to working in China both international activist groups and corporate ‘CSR compliance’ staff, not to mention international labour researchers and donor agencies with an interest in these issues, all need credible, local partners to advance their programmes. Few international agencies are willing to work exclusively with government partners. This creates great opportunities, but also significant risks, for the sprinkling of independent Chinese actors in this field.
One such risk is the ‘mission drift’ that can occur when numerous prospective partners, with quite different needs and agendas, come knocking at the door. Another is the inevitable distraction when a small organisation is suddenly projected onto an international stage, deluged with invitations to speak at conferences and requests for meetings and interviews. And this can exacerbate the third risk, of trying to manage too many projects at once.
All of these problems appear to have beset the Shenzhen-based Institute for Contemporary Observation (ICO), founded in 2001 by Dr. Liu Kaiming, who had previously spent five years reporting on labour issues for the Shenzhen Legal Daily. ICO has just received a 'sustainability award' from Shell China and theEconomic Observer>,. But recent events raise questions about the organisation's own sustainability.
It was Dr. Liu’s comparative advantage but ultimately also his misfortune that he was one of the very few visible stars in the mainland’s labour rights firmament. Within a short time he was incredibly busy. ICO became involved in conducting social audits for a variety of multinational corporations, researching workplace conditions, overtime and industrial accidents for both corporate and international NGO clients, organising academic and expert seminars, delivering legal advice to workers, rights training to migrant women and CSR training to factory managers, conducting factory outreach worker education programmes and, as of last year, creating a community college for migrant workers. Added to which, last year Dr. Liu logged seven international speaking engagements and a variety of mainland presentations, and somehow also found time to write a paper on ‘The Art of Balancing as a Survival Principle for Chinese NGOs.’
Something had to give, and it was the community college, which was a collaborative effort with a Labour Research Centre at UC Berkeley. The US Department of State had awarded USD 370,000 for the project but UC Berkley has now pulled out over concerns about ICO’s implementation capacity, and the State Department has suspended funding.
Four years ago, upon publication of our 250 Chinese NGOs directory we sounded, in the Introduction, a cautionary note to the effect that:
We hope that ICO and Dr. Liu will find ways to prune their operations to a more manageable level, enabling the organisation to develop less chaotically in future. And we hope that international donors keen to promote labour rights in China will desist from overdosing young plants with too much fertiliser.