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Activist Details Labor Abuses Against Chinese Teachers

Posted by Author on January 17, 2008

By Sean Cavanagh, Education Week News, MD, Jan. 16, 2008-

Washington– 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 the nation’s mines and factories, but also in its classrooms, a leading labor advocate contends.

Han Dongfang, who took part in the Tiananmen Square protests and now directs a Chinese labor-rights organization, detailed those 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 advocates say have occurred with burgeoning privatization in the Asian nation, in both state-owned and newly emergent private industries.

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.

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

There “are no bargaining rights at all,” he told reporters in Washington Jan.15. “Not only are teachers left behind, children are left behind.”

Mr. Han took part in the 1989 public protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which were violently suppressed by the Chinese authorities. As a result of his activism, he says, he was later imprisoned for a period of nearly two years. He 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, a Washington nonprofit established by the American Federation of Teachers and named in honor of its late president. He spoke at the National Press Club about the release of two new reports: “A Cry for Justice: the Voices of Chinese Workers,” published by the institute, and “Speaking Out: The Workers’ Movement in China,”Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader issued by Mr. Han’s organization.

The reports include the accounts of workers in factories, coal mines, oilfields, 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.

Teachers’ Unions Banned

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

Despite those pledges from the government, teachers in many areas of China, particularly rural and remote areas, have low wages—in some cases, the equivalent of about $12 U.S. per month, according to one of the reports. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, the central Communist government in Beijing transferred more authority over education to local governments. But that transformation has spawned other problems, namely corruption, the Shanker Insitute report maintains.

“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.”

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 squelched many of those efforts, it says.

The Chinese government has over the years approved job protections for workers in various professions, including teaching, according to Mr. Han and information from his organization. But there is often no way to enforce those protections for workers because government officials 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 conclusions.

While it is sometimes difficult to gauge the exact motivations behind public demonstrations in China, there have been credible institute reports that the number has increased 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 report’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.

Original report from Education Week

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