The mainland's labour laws look good on paper, and proposed new regulations would fill in gaps on working hours to make them even more impressive. The paid breaks of 20 minutes for more than four hours' work, and the maximum 11-hour days, being suggested are just what factory workers, miners and drivers need. In a country where enforcement of legislation is at best spotty, though, what workers need and what they get are entirely different matters. It will remain that way until officials and employers adhere to the letter and spirit of the rules.
New labour regulations introduced four years ago gave workers rights that are unusual for developing countries. Eight-hour days and 44-hour weeks were guaranteed, along with specified working terms and conditions. Since then, there has been a marked rise in the number of workplace-related protests; unions have stepped in more often to mediate with employers; and labour tribunals have been more common. The regulations are so strong that companies are apt to complain that they tilt too heavily towards employees.
It is what might be expected from a government still firmly following the path of its socialist revolution. But there is another reality for Chinese workers that is a global problem: those at the bottom of the pay scale are the most exploited. Desperate to hold on to jobs that they cannot afford to lose, they can easily fall prey to unscrupulous employers. If there are few labour inspectors, as is the case on the mainland, and workers lack collective power, laws are meaningless.
Independent investigations of mainland companies have highlighted a host of labour law violations, from forced and excessive overtime to a failure to sign mandatory employment contracts to discrimination on grounds of sex or age. Introducing legislation that is difficult to supervise when existing laws appear to be regularly flouted would seem to be premature. Better enforcement would be a more sensible place to start.