The emergence of the so-called 'Rising Powers' - including but not limited to China, India, Brazil and Russia - represents one of the key drivers of global economic and social change. The Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures network funded by the Economic and Social Research Council includes 12 research projects at ten universities across the UK that explore these ongoing changes.
Cheap clothes, shoes, toys, electronics… - China’s exports of cheap manufactures have contributed substantially to its reemergence as a global economic power over the past three decades. This model of economic growth has largely been based on low wages, keeping production costs low and making exports competitive. However, more recently this picture is changing. Workers are going on strike for higher pay and better working conditions, international NGOs are putting pressure on multinationals to abandon sweatshop production, and the Chinese government is trying to safeguard a ‘harmonious society’ by protecting workers through stricter labour laws.
How do these dynamics reflect broader debates on public and private regulation? The contributions in this special issue illustrate the limits of voluntary private regulation through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, which have been described by researchers interested in labour standards in Global Value Chains and Global Production Networks. Further, in line with the literature on labour in China, the articles in this collection underline the importance of ‘hard’ public regulation by the state, but also show the complexity of effectively implementing such labour laws.
The individual articles in this issue shed light on different aspects of labour issues in China. First, Lüthje finds an increasing segmentation between high- and low skilled workers in the Chinese automobile industry, who face very different working conditions and wages. Further, Ngok and Zhuang highlight difficulties in implementing new labour laws in China, and make suggestions to increase the efficiency of the labour inspection regime. Hui and Chan document the role of multinationals in lobbying against stricter labour legislation in China through Hong Kong based business associations, which highlights links between global and local pressures around labour regulation. Finally, Wu and Sun critically analyse the practice of collective consultation, in which workers are represented through the All China Federation of Trade Unions. Their findings point to the need for further analysis of trend towards collective bargaining in China.
Overall, the articles show strong dynamics of changing labour conditions in China, primarily based on increased worker activism and the state’s efforts to respond to these. More research is needed to grasp these changes, in particular as significant differences are emerging across economic sectors and across regions in China. Analysing these requires moving away from the perception of the Chinese state as a homogeneous actor and recognizing different dynamics at local level. Further, in a context of global production arrangements, combining research on labour relations in China with perspectives on labour standards in global production networks appears to be a fruitful approach that should be pursued further.