During China’s economic reform in 1978, people thought workers in China would be treated better as income levels rose.
While China has seen improvements in terms of civil society and pro-labor movements, labor rights protection in China still lacks institutionalization due to the state’s heavy involvement and monopoly on trade unions.
To similar socialist countries such as North Korea that may start engaging in international trade, China represents the extent to which countries can achieve rapid development. Transitioning countries such as North Korea can learn from China’s lessons in balancing state intervention with market forces without disrupting its entire labor relations.
Analyzing China’s labor relations can help other countries prevent similar problems that may arise in sustainable economic growth such as weak institutionalization and the side effects of heavy state involvement.
To be fair, labor rights in China have improved since it first opened up to the world.
China has had non-governmental organizations (NGOs) since the early 1900s and saw pro-labor movement by leadership within the Chinese Communist Party around 2007 to 2012, including Chen Weiguang, the Chairman of the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions (GZFTU).
There is no official count of labor NGOs as most are registered as commercial entities or do not have any formal registration, but the overall consensus among scholars is that the number has been rising; at least thirty labor NGOs operate in the major cities of China.
Furthermore, Chen Weiguang is an example of a Chinese leader who fought for greater union accountability to advance pro-labor issues, which can be defined as “the pursuit of working-class interests as an end in itself, without regard to the interests of capital or the nation.”
Despite advances in pro-labor movements, China’s democratization is still limited by a lack of institutionalization of labor rights due to heavy state involvement.
The advances of pro-labor movements remain temporary. China’s civil society is not effective because the state continues to exert influence over unions and labor rights lack institutionalization.
Even though China scholars have emphasized the rising number of NGOs and regulations that allow them in China, citizen power and civil society in China are not guaranteed by the mere existence of non-governmental organizations. Rather, they can strengthen state domination and market-driven inequalities.
Chen Weiguang was not able to institutionalize a pro-labor political culture, with his pro-labor policies having largely been limited by the overwhelming industrial demands of Guangzhou city.
As the largest manufacturing center in China, Guangdong is the best case study for labor rights in an industrializing country.
It is easy to vilify the effects of industrialization in Guangdong when the region with the most capitalist industrialization has also seen the most ‘worker resistance.’
While it may be tempting to argue that capitalist industrialization naturally worsens working conditions and labor relations, the frequent insurgency in Guangdong is more closely linked to China’s weak institutionalization of labor rights and fraught relationships among organized unions and workers.
In fact, a Hong Kong-based NGO finds that the number of strikes increased as the rate of economic growth has slowed over time, dispelling the idea that industrialization causes more frequent strikes.
Rather, it is more likely that the strong pressure for economic growth has affected China’s limitations in enforcing labor requirements.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), of which China is a permanent member, sets out international labor standards of a tripartite, or a three-part, representation of the government, employers, and workers.
Although Chinese leaders may recognize workers’ rights as being important, the road to economic growth for China is labor-intensive and resource-driven in manufacturing sectors such as electronics, construction machinery, and automobile parts. Due to these economic factors, unions are “more of a ‘third party’ than a representative of the workers” in China.
Unorganized workers often start strikes rather than unions. Trade unions, on the other hand, do not embrace workers’ rights but try to defuse the situation by suppressing and resolving labor disputes.
Trade unions in China ‘effectively’ resolve these frequent labor disputes quickly due to the economic pressures of productivity.
The main lesson North Korea can take away from China is the dangers of weak institutionalization in cases of heavy state involvement
Even though China has trade unions on paper, industrial relations in China demonstrate low levels of institutionalization of labor rights. Furthermore, the suppression of labor demands has led to more frequent disputes, albeit short, as seen in Guangdong.
As a country that is at the stage of opening up to the world economy, analogous to China’s economic reform in 1978, North Korea may act similarly to China in the face of industrial development.
The North Korean state already plays a larger role in conflict resolution than the Chinese government. A superficial implementation of labor standards can quickly devolve into a labor union separate from the workers.
As seen in China, a weak, third party trade union cannot fully represent the workers’ needs. A labor structure that is intended to improve labor relations may end up worsening them.
In this sense, ensuring autonomous representation of workers can be in North Korea’s interests in achieving greater economic development less riddled by labor disputes.
HEAVY STATE INVOLVEMENT
In addition to inadequate representation of workers’ interests, heavy involvement by the state can make unions weak and put workers at the mercy of the state.
The Chinese government plays a big role in trade unions and strike settlements, often coercing negotiations when necessary.
The state has also undermined workers with a “categorical ban on the development of worker collective power at the point of production.” Without collective power, workers are at a disadvantage because strikes in China are not lawful means of dispute, but rather a “discursive expression of grievance” by unorganized workers.
Disputes, therefore, must be settled in a non-judicial manner, and the government plays a central role in the non-judicial process of conflict resolution.
Principles of settlement in Chinese labor laws are not specific enough to independently guide the process. Not to mention, the municipal governments and unions in regions such as Guangdong and Shandong do not communicate with the workers and vice versa.
Compared to China, North Korea’s worker class is more rigorously controlled. Strikes, collective bargaining, and any organized labor activities are illegal in North Korea.
[North Korea] will likely face the same problems China faces as it more actively engages in international trade
Although North Korea’s Foreign Enterprise Law allows foreign companies to implement contracts “concerning working conditions,” even industrial regions with foreign companies such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex did not touch on workers’ collective power.
Understandably, workers’ collective power is a sensitive subject in North Korea, and strikes remain one of the most politically sensitive topics in China as well.
It is easy for North Korea’s leadership to think that the state’s control is so strong that labor disputes will not arise in the first place. Furthermore, some leaders may fear that granting labor protections can weaken the state’s power.
Without judicious mediation by civil society actors, however, the state’s grasp on labor relations is likely to further worsen with heightened labor tensions, as seen in China. In other words, North Korea can broaden its horizons from military strikes to labor strikes in preparation for a booming economy.
North Korean workers’ rights are more vulnerable than those in China. Especially with the influences of international trade, the regime can have difficulty balancing industrial needs with international labor standards of protecting workers.
North Korea can learn from China’s labor relations in deciding how it will interact with its workers in the future.
The oligarchical nature of the union’s leadership is another symptom of weak institutionalization in China that compromises labor protections.
In addition to Chen Weiguang, the Guangdong Hotel Union is another example in which union chairs are vulnerable to the unchecked powers of managerial retaliation.
Strong control over the union’s leadership can not only weaken institutionalization of labor protections but also induce leaders to be passive. In fear of being removed from office, the trade union leadership becomes careful in supporting workers’ demands.
As workers are powerless, “passivity from union leadership is tantamount to repression,” a scholar argues. This weak leadership is indicative of the labor phenomenon that can happen in North Korea when a state plays a big role in labor relations and creates an oligarchical power over its leadership.
Without judicious mediation by civil society actors… the state’s grasp on labor relations is likely to further worsen with heightened labor tensions
In the case of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, its Labor Regulation guides labor procedures, and it does not touch on collective industrial relations.
Because no legislation guides collective negotiations, the North Korean government steps in, rather than a union, when workers’ demands are seen as unreasonable. This structure can explain the similar behavior North Korean workers show in expressing their demands.
With insufficient labor rights for collective bargaining, North Korean workers tend to express their demands independent from a union or the government through ‘weak’ forms of strike and sabotage.
Without regular, collective bargaining power, Kim describes Kaesong’s labor situation as a constant negotiation at all times. Both parties could benefit from a regularized negotiation structure that wastes less time on negotiations and allows better communication in the first place.
North Korea can benefit from establishing civil organizations for this purpose, which it does not yet have. Despite the government identifying six “civil organizations,” scholars or outside NGOs have not recognized organizations orchestrated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as NGOs.
Ensuring the institutionalization of labor protections and preventing union oligarchy will be essential for the rapid economic development North Korea wants.
China’s most industrialized city, Guangzhou, has seen the most worker resistance. Scholars have found that the reason for this increased resistance has not been because of Guangzhou’s industrialization, but rather the region’s fraught relationship among the unions and workers.
North Korea has not reached the same levels of industrialization and has not faced frequent labor strikes yet, but it will likely face the same problems China faces as it more actively engages in international trade.
The main lesson North Korea can take away from China is the dangers of weak institutionalization in cases of heavy state involvement.
As seen in China, scholars argue that workers need citizenship rights including “rights to association, a decent livelihood, and the capability of deciding what that decent livelihood entails.”
While it is unlikely for North Korea to fully guarantee political and civil rights to its workers, trade unions are required in international trade.
Transitioning countries such as North Korea should pay special attention to preventing union monopolies if they are interested in opening up their economies and achieving rapid, yet sustainable, economic growth.
Thank you to Dr. Gaochao He, Jake Kim, and Youngwoo Jung at Johns Hopkins, Sam Baron at OHCHR, and Oliver Hotham at NK News for their help in reviewing this article.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today
During China’s economic reform in 1978, people thought workers in China would be treated better as income levels rose.While China has seen improvements in terms of civil society and pro-labor movements, labor rights protection in China still lacks institutionalization due to the state’s heavy involvement and monopoly on trade unions.To similar socialist countries such as North Korea
Jessup Jong is a policy research assistant at the Harvard Medical School Program in Global Surgery and Social Change. He is also an Aitchison Public Service Fellow at the political science department of Johns Hopkins University. Jessup tweets at @jessupjong.