Harnessing Digital Platforms to Mobilize Workers in China

Publication Date: 

October 18, 2016


Just Jobs Network


Eric Gottwald and Kevin Lin, International Labor Rights Froum

Community-based, non-proft workers’ rights centers in China have proliferated since the mid-1990s with the common goal of assisting internal migrant workers in resolving labor rights disputes. Founded by migrant workers and concerned professionals, these organizations primarily provide pro bono legal aid and trainings to individuals and groups of migrant workers in their local communities. China’s rapid industrialization has fueled a large-scale migration of rural workers to burgeoning cities over the last two decades, and today over 270 million migrant workers are employed in export manufacturing, construction and service sectors.

Rural migrant workers face endemic violations of their basic labor rights. The number of laborrelated legal disputes has been rising since the 1990s. Between 2010 and 2014, the annual number of disputes rose from 600,865 to 715,163, a 19 percent increase over four years. The majority of the cases related to unpaid wages, failure of the employers to contribute to the government-mandated social insurance scheme, and inadequate severance compensation for laidoff workers.

Progressive reforms to labor law, including the Labor Contract Law and the Labor Dispute Mediation and Arbitration Law, have provided migrant workers with legal tools to challenge employer violations. Government statistics reflect that workers have a good chance of either winning or reaching a compromise in the majority of such disputes. For labor litigation cases in 2014, employees won 250,284 cases or 35.2 percent, both employers and employees partially won in 378,219 cases or 53.2 percent, and employers only won 82,541 cases or 11.6 percent.  

Yet in practice the labor laws have been undermined by ineffective enforcement, migrant workers’ lack of legal knowledge to pursue claims and the high cost of representation. A critical task of labor rights advocacy, therefore, is to equip workers with the necessary legal knowledge and provide them with the means to help pursue formal claims. Because migrant workers remain unorganized and only notionally represented by the government-afliated union federation, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), there is a large need for alternative forms of organization and forums for dispute resolution and representation, which workers’ rights centers hope to address.

A signifcant challenge for these centers is connecting with hundreds of thousands of transient migrant workers in their localities. Thanks to their rapid development and popularization, China’s worker centers have taken advantage of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to reach out to large number of migrant workers. Increasingly, ICTs have served as indispensable tools for the monitoring, reporting and remission of labor rights violations among migrant workers. Moreover, these ICTs also act as a tool to organize workers.

This chapter analyzes the use of ICTs by examining two long-established worker centers in China, both of which have extensively deployed these technologies in their day-to-day work. It outlines the ways in which the organizations have used these technologies, how effective the technologies have been in helping them in their work, and the risks – such as government surveillance – associated with the use of these ICTs.

The two centers are located in China’s southern, export-oriented manufacturing region and cater primarily to migrant workers in consumermanufacturing industries such as electronics and apparel, which produce products for many popular global brands. The chapter draws on data collected between 2012 and 2016 in ILRF’s quarterly reports, and semi-structured interviews ILRF conducted with the directors of both worker centers in 2016. This information highlights issues and trends in the use of information technologies by migrant workers and worker centers to address labor rights violations.

In offering insights into how migrant workers and worker centers have adopted ICTs to promote rights at work and the obstacles and challenges confronting them, this chapter serves as a guide for practitioners and policymakers to evaluate alternative means of engaging with workers, labor rights groups and unions in China and elsewhere in the world.  

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“Transformations in Technology, Transformations in Work,” the Just Jobs Networks’ 2016 Signature Volume, discusses a diverse range of topics related to the varied impacts of technological change on modern workplaces, from farms in Zambia to factories in China.  

The volume includes a chapter written by Kevin Lin, ILRF’s China Program Officer, on how workers in China are leveraging digital technologies  -- including social media applications -- to empower and organize themselves.

ILRF has been a member of the Just Jobs Network since 2010.