Developing Workplace Monitoring Skills in Factory Workers: A Chinese-Based Analysis with Worldwide Applications

By Fox, Jeremy B.; Donohue, Joan M. et al. | International Journal of Management, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Developing Workplace Monitoring Skills in Factory Workers: A Chinese-Based Analysis with Worldwide Applications


Fox, Jeremy B., Donohue, Joan M., Wu, Jinpei, International Journal of Management


We discuss the monitoring of workplace conditions (e.g.; safety, pay, age requirements, and work hours) in the context of the low-wage labor market of the People's Republic of China. Specifically, we address the question: How can foreign invested companies carefully monitor workplace conditions in their invested country's factories without incurring direct monitoring costs? There are a number of potential monitoring candidates, such as government officials, company administrators, labor unions, and the employees themselves. The group that would be the most motivated and have the best potential ability to be effective monitors would be the employees themselves. However, if Chinese employees are to take on the role of monitors, there first needs to be a significant amount of employee education and development within all levels of the organization. Workers need, at the very least, basic literacy and math skills. We discuss the current workplace monitoring situation in China and note how our findings can be extended to the worldwide low-wage labor market.

Introduction

The risks associated with cheap labor throughout the world include underage, underpaid and overworked employees in unsafe work environments. These risks are seen in every developing (and in many developed) nations. Naturally, these concerns give Foreign Invested Enterprises (FIEs) substantial pause. They have only to remember the Nike, Inc. public relations disaster of the mid 1990's to recognize that using such labor pits the seeming advantages of cheap labor against the possible PR problems associated with the potentially unethical treatment of employees. We propose a method of monitoring workplace conditions that would be of limited cost to the FTE, or to the focus company, and would create monitors superior to other candidates for this position. We structure our proposal in the context of the Chinese labor market.

China's Situation

When enforced consistently, Chinese workplace safety, work hours, pay and age requirements are typically enforced not by regulators from Beijing or local governments or the union, but instead by FIEs using either their own workplace monitors or independent monitors in the FIE's employ. Monitors have the capability and the clout to find and correct issues before they result in company-wide unrest. Conversely, employees on their own with no clout are forced by sometimes hostile supervisors to confront issues through outside intervention. That is, enforcement of workers' rights can cothe only if employees are aware of possible remedial processes such as voicing concerns to the local labor council, their union or, in desperation, the press. Naturally, in all these cases, job loss is essentially a foregone conclusion (despite a long and drawn out remedial process). see Chan (2001) for numerous examples of labor exploitation and employee response.

Often, however, incrementally arising problems (e.g.; missed pay checks or physical abuse from supervisors) do not immediately motivate employees to take institutional actions; instead employees will accept such employer behavior until it becomes unbearable, resulting ultimately in a catastrophic reaction. For example, the popular press in China was recently abuzz over the case of a migrant laborer who had murdered his bosses over lack of pay (overdue for three months), accompanied with inflicted humiliation (Staff Report 2005). Would it not be better for all those concerned to correct labor problems (and more minor problems) in a timely manner?

Workplace Monitoring

Workplace monitors visit plants looking for various production-related problems crucial to the firm while also looking for violations of labor regulations (national and local) and keeping in mind good public relations and economic reality "back home." Bad public relations, such as images of sweatshop conditions haunt FIE manufacturers and the public, while the threat of such exposure is still prevalent today (see, for example, Jung 2005). …

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