It is well known to researchers and activists, both in the labour/union movement and at universities, that during the last decades of neoliberal “globalisation” the worlds of work and employment have been profoundly transformed. Moreover, as has been powerfully demonstrated again by the recent global economic crisis, socio-economic developments and the transformations of labour realities in different regions of the world are highly interconnected and mutually influence each other. However, while the capital side continues to optimise capital accumulation on a global scale (by an international organisation of working processes and an externalisation of social costs) the international coordination of labour organisations is still quite limited and has not yet given rise to a global labour movement.
This lack of international coordination in the realm of labour is particularly discernible in the cases of China and Europe. While during the last thirty years, China has become the “world’s factory”, the transformation of industrial relations within the country and on a global scale, are still being discussed in Europe predominantly in terms of a “threat” of shift of investments and jobs to China or more generally with regard to the implications of low-wage competition. In fact, the production of goods “made in China” is predominantly characterised by high profit margins at different levels of global supply chains and based on high exploitation rates as well as environmental destruction. However, the knowledge about and the mutual understanding of different working conditions as an essential pre-condition for collective action has not been considered in any great depth so far. Presently little serious and authentic information on social movements and labour disputes within the country is available outside of China. In addition, only limited information on specific historical and institutional conditions is attainable. This reinforces wide-spread clichés on both sides.
Especially since the mid 1990s, China has experienced essential transformations in the realm of labour. The unmaking of the old working class made up of (former) workers in state owned enterprises following large-scale privatisation efforts was accompanied by the making of a new working class of migrant-workers (nongmingong; “peasant-workers”) whose number has already reached more than 200 million people. Moreover, there has recently been a significant increase in labour disputes and strikes in China which are becoming more and more successful. Despite widespread opinions that the “middle class” will mainly influence the country’s development, it is obvious that these struggles of a new working class have the potential to fundamentally shape the future of China and across the border.
This context will provide the background for our conference which aims to bring together researchers and activists to discuss – in solidarity with the labour movements – key features of labour relations and workers’ struggles in China and Europe and, thereby, to encourage further cooperation in academic and activist terms.
We are certainly aware that there are also undeniable differences between the worlds of work and employment in China and Europe and that the task of “comparing” different situations based on specific historical-institutional developments is not unproblematic. Nevertheless, we believe that regarding such issues as the impact of the crisis on working conditions and labour disputes, the role of trade unions, the situation of migrant-workers or the increase of precarious work it is necessary to deepen the debate between researchers and activists in both regions.