Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lessons from the Pearl River Delta

I was in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) recently and the sky there was the bluest I've ever seen it. Maybe it was luck or maybe it was the fact that thousands of factories have shut down over the past months.  I'm inclined to believe the latter.  People have told me that the scenes at PRD train stations are now sometimes reminiscent of Spring Festival, with crowds of workers waiting to return home.  Laid off employees have rioted at a toy factory in Dongguan and elsewhere.  Taxi drivers in Guangzhou, like their colleagues in cities around the country, are on strike. 

As I've said before, my worry is that the government will take this as a sign that it should hold back on strengthening labor protections.  There are signs that this is exactly how authorities have read the situation.  Already, provincial and municipal minimum wage raises have been frozen. The recently released implementation guidelines for the Labor Contract Law are watering down the law's impact, as are local regulations.  

Beijing should realize that far from being a solution to economic difficulties, bad working conditions have made an already bad situation worse.  For example, because it did not ensure that wages were paid on time, the government is now forced to pick up the tab for Taiwanese companies that disappear in the night, leaving their workers months behind in wages.  Non-payment of social security fees (and the non-transferability of those payments to workers' home provinces) make the crowds returning to Hunan and Sichuan dangerously insecure---and threaten stability in the interior.  

This crisis should be seen as an opportunity for China to reaffirm its commitment to fairness and to creating higher value-added industries, rather than an excuse to retreat.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama wins

The victory really does change everything.  It'll require a more open heart and less distance.  This probably comes close to feeling the way a revolution does.   What gets me is how efforts by so many people really added up to something.  

Right now, people are passing my window on the way to the White House.  U Street is filled with crowds and singing and sign waving and taxis honking horns.