RecensionsBook reviews

Understanding Labour and Employment Law in China, By Ronald C. Brown, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 332 pp., ISBN 978-0-521-19148-7.[Record]

  • Mathieu Dupuis

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  • Mathieu Dupuis
    Université de Montréal

Since its rapid transition from a planned economy to a socialist market economy started in the late 1970s, China’s actions have raised numerous questions regarding labour and social rights as well as the capacity of the Communist Party to justify and renew itself. Throughout this transition, China has repositioned its economic development from being predominantly based on agriculture and State-owned Enterprises (SOEs), to a labour-intensive economy specializing in industrial sectors such as textiles, electronics and mining, making it the new “workshop of the world.” This fantastic development raised issues not only concerning the competitive pressures it exerts on the global economy, but also regarding the rights of Chinese workers who have, in some cases, responded with violent protests. This led China’s political powers to implement a series of reforms, beginning with the 1994 Labour Law, that progressively gave Chinese workers an almost complete set of rights, remedies and forums to use regarding labour contracts, labour disputes and collective bargaining. Ronald C. Brown’s book tries to make sense of this series of reforms and its main objectives are trying to understand workplace regulations and the legal environment in China. Specifically, the book focuses on the recent developments of the labour and employment laws put in place between 1994 and 2008 and centres on the following question: “With the adoption of a succession of new labour laws in the country, how are China’s workplaces regulated?” Brown’s book is divided into seven parts. The first part, “Understanding China’s regulation of the workplace,” introduces us to China’s labour and employment law developments and to the architecture of the juridical environment. Brown argues that these new forms of regulation are a result of both internal and external pressures. Until now, it has had an uneven impact on Chinese workers: regional differences tend to be strong and the rapid economic transition has created new “classes” of workers, such as the migrant worker and his counterpart, the urban worker. Furthermore, the implementation and enforcement of various laws and settlements is subject to regional differences. Even though the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security – a so-called “Super Ministry” – is in charge of the supervision of social security and legislation for urban, rural and government workers, a multitude of forums are devoted to the enforcement of labour regulations (local and regional bureaus, Supreme People’s Court, Labour Arbitration Commission, etc). Therefore, the regulations depend on regional interpretations and are subject to major divergences (p. 12). The second part of the book deals with employment relationships legislation in China. The legal definition of the employee/employer “couple” arises from the 1994 Labour Law and has been substantially clarified in subsequent laws. The term enterprise refers to organizations engaged in production, servicing and distribution while the term state organization refers to the government and its agencies (pp. 25-26). Similarly, the term employee/worker is explicitly defined in the Labour Law. The 2001 Trade Union Law describes the term as an individual who performs physical or mental work in enterprises, institutions or government authorities within Chinese territory and who earns their living from wages or salaries (p. 29). There is no distinction between contingent or temporary employees and regular employees. However, part-timers are excluded from the obligation to have a written contract. Migrant workers must enjoy labour rights equal to those of urban workers even though some local dispositions exclude migrants from certain privileges. Since the 2008 Labour Contract Law (LCL), written individual employment contracts are mandatory. This new labour law provide a significant power of enforcement over employers that refuse to give contracts to vulnerable groups. Contracts must also specify: duration …