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Teacher Labor Abuses in China Chronicled

By Sean Cavanagh — January 16, 2008 4 min read
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Han Dongfang stands in Hong Kong a decade ago. From that special region of China, he conducts interviews with workers on the mainland to learn of working conditions.

As China’s economy surges, many of the workers powering that growth are coping with low wages, scarce legal protections, and poor on-the-job conditions—not just in mines and factories, but also in classrooms, a leading labor advocate from that country contends.

Han Dongfang, who took part in the Tiananmen Square protests and now directs a Chinese labor-rights organization, detailed concerns about the rights of educators and other workers at a Washington event this week, which coincided with the release of a pair of reports on labor conditions in China.

The reports describe growing concerns about labor abuses that critics say have occurred in state-owned industries and in the private sector that has expanded rapidly with free-market reforms.

Many teachers, particularly in rural areas, work for little pay and with few resources, and with no opportunity to improve their working conditions through organized labor, Mr. Han said.

There “are no bargaining rights at all,” he told reporters here. “Not only are teachers left behind, children are left behind.”

Mr. Han, 44, took part in the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which were violently suppressed by Chinese authorities. As a result of his activism, he said, he was later imprisoned for nearly two years. He now directs the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor-rights group founded in 1994.

His appearance was arranged with help from the Albert Shanker Institute. The Washington nonprofit group was established by the American Federation of Teachers —and named in honor of its late president—to support education, union issues, and the promotion of democracy. Mr. Han spoke at the National Press Club about the release of the two reports: “A Cry for Justice: The Voices of Chinese Workers,” published by the institute, and “Speaking Out: The Workers’ Movement Inside China,” issued by Mr. Han’s organization.

The reports include accounts of workers in factories, coal mines, and other industries who were interviewed by Mr. Han, institute officials said. From Hong Kong,Mr. Han conducts interviews with workers and peasants in China on a radio program, Radio Free Asia.

Union Organizing Difficult

China’s government has made a major push in recent years to expand access to education to rural and other underserved populations, such as migrant families pouring into cities in search of work. It has also sought to replace rote, test-dominated instruction in its schools, which serve an estimated 230 million K-12 students, with lessons that promote creativity and problem-solving.

More on China

For more stories on China, see our earlier series, EdWeek in China. The series examines education in China today, the classroom strategies at work in schools, and the strengths and weakness Chinese educators and others see in their education system.

Despite the government’s pledges to improve the quality of schools, teachers in many parts of China, particularly rural areas, have low wages—in some cases, the equivalent of about $12 a month, according to one of the reports. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, the central Communist government in Beijing has transferred more authority over education to local governments. But that transformation has spawned other problems, notably corruption, the Shanker Institute report maintains.

Teachers in some parts of China have responded with public protests and strikes, the report says, and some have sought to organize teachers’ unions. But the government squelches many of those efforts, it says.

“Teachers have traditionally enjoyed great respect in Chinese society because they belong to a revered group—the intelligentsia,” the institute’s report, “A Cry for Justice,” says. “Yet their elite social status hasn’t brought them economic rewards.” (“Teaching Viewed as Stable and Respectable Profession,” June 13, 2007.)

The Chinese government has over the years approved job protections for workers in various professions, including teaching, according to Mr. Han and his organization. But there is often no way to enforce those protections, and government officials tend to ignore the violations, he said.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment about the reports or Mr. Han’s assertions.

There have been credible reports that the number of demonstrations has increased in China in recent years, with workplace conditions acting as a likely spark, said Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York City.

Mr. Segal agreed with the institute’s finding that free-market forces have contributed to instability, as workers have moved from state-controlled jobs to those with fewer government protections. The needs of China’s new industries, and the massive migration of workers, including teachers, from the countryside into cities have fueled those conditions, he added.

For teachers, “the issue is going to be pay and whether they’re being paid” at all, he said.

China’s changing economy “plays a huge role,” Mr. Segal said. There’s been “a dismantling of the social-welfare net.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Teacher Labor Abuses in China Chronicled

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