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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Government crackdown on labor groups worsens in South China

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planks piled higher than legal safety standards allow. The fall put him out of work for a year. 

In both cases, he says he was not properly compensated for the accidents.

For the finger he received $475, and still nothing for his hip. The company offered him the lowest pay grade of 900 yuan a month, about $141, over the year he was out of work. 

Song and his friend Wu Baozhi, a 40-year-old worker originally from Henan Province, have both sought help from the Shenzhen Migrant Workers Center. 

Wu said his hard luck comes from a series of layoffs over the past year — four in all —from factories that employed him, then dumped him just before his probationary period was about to end, examples of so-called “strategic layoffs.”

Both men say they have tried appealing to the courts, government institutions and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) — the only legally sanctioned trade union in China — to seek redress, but to no avail.

“We’ve gone to the trade union, but they don’t help us,” Song said. “The trade union is like a vase, just a decoration on a table.”

New Tricks of the Trade 

The use of labor dispatch agencies to hire workers for what are supposed to be temporary positions has boomed due to loopholes in the 2009 Labor Contract Law went into effect, many China labor watchers say.

Official estimates from ACFTU say around 60 million such workers were being used in China in 2010.

Zhang of Spring Breeze said the number is likely closer to 70 million now, which would mean labor dispatch workers make up around 10 percent of the total labor force in China. 

Companies have been able to get around many aspects of the Labor Contract Law by hiring through the dispatch agencies, then keeping workers on longer than six months, not paying them proper overtime, not paying them at salary levels of workers contracted directly by companies for the same positions and many other similar evasions.

“China is creating too many laws but not implementing them,” Zhang says. “Enterprises are taking advantage of the loopholes, there are too many loopholes. I think they should get rid of labor dispatch agencies because it puts people under two bosses.”

Revisions were proposed this summer to tighten an article in the law and are likely to pass, but even those within labor dispatch companies themselves don’t think the changes will make much difference. 

Zhao Jiawen, president of the Shenzhen Jincao HR Information Advisory Service Company, one of the top three labor dispatch companies in Shenzhen, said the tighter restrictions on companies like his is only forcing them to adapt and will only impact smaller companies. 

About 10 of his clients have already begun to get ahead of these changes by directly outsourcing parts of their operations — say human resources divisions, clerical work, or even particular lower-end manufacturing positions — directly to the labor dispatch companies.

So instead being dispatched to a business, the workers instead simply work for the dispatch company so they are not technically dispatch workers anymore. 

“The revisions are meant to regulate the labor dispatch services, but we have ways to avoid that by changing how we offer our services,” Zhao said.

Take It or Leave It

Outside the Shenzhen Jincao offices, workers mill about, browsing over ads for jobs pinned to large bulletin boards in the hallway.

A 36-year-old construction machinery operator from Jiangxi named Peng, who just arrived in Shenzhen last week, is on his way out the door after securing a recommendation letter to get an interview for 4,000 yuan per-month ($630) bulldozer driving job.

“The pay is not that good, but not too bad,” he says. “Others sometimes get half for the same job.” 

Li Yaoyuan, a 19-year old from Jiangxi province stands smoking outside the door and reads the four or five posted jobs there, seemingly not wanting to get dragged too far into the offices. 

“My friends have told me not to take contracts from labor dispatch companies,” he says. “But you can’t go directly to a lot of the factories to get a job, you have to get a recommendation letter from the dispatch company first, and if you get the job you pay 100 yuan ($15) to the agency.” 

Zhang of Spring Breeze says labor dispatch companies should be banned, and has led gotten 10,000 signatures calling for as much. Last November he attempted to run for village elections in his local district, but aborted the campaign because of pressure from local authorities and after one of his colleagues was arrested for handing out his platform flyers.

“I was not even allowed to pass out their own official notice about the election,” Zhang said with a wry smile. “I pasted it to a wall and they ripped it down and told me ‘you’re not allowed to publicize the election.’”

In the Dalang County area of Shenzhen where Zhang lives, only 6,900 of the 350,000 residents are hukou holders, he said. Of the 60,000 residents in the area he would have represented, only 797 were officially allowed to vote, and only three of those were non-hukou holders — his wife, his colleague and himself.