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Mao Tse-tung

Nigel Harris et al.

Mao Tse-tung

The Chinese Working Class
in the 1920s and 1930s

Chinese factories and cities repeated the appalling conditions described by Engels in Manchester seventy years earlier, or Mayhew in London at about the same time. Famine, slaughter and bonded slavery afflicted the peasants; debt, bonded labour, unemployment and barbarous conditions for the workers and their families.

Labour Conditions in China, British Government Report, London, Cmnd. 2442, 1924:

Child labour, much of it under the age of six, was widely employed on two twelve hour shifts in silk filatures–

‘Young children, certainly not more than five years of age, were to be seen working with almost incredible rapidity.’ (p.43)

‘The scale of wages earned by the head of the family is insufficient to support the family, and any efforts that might be made by the employers to regulate the labour of women and children are frustrated by the economic necessity on the part of the labourer to permit all the members of his family to contribute as much as possible to their own support.’ (British Consul, Tientsin, p.96)

‘The sanitary conditions in silk factories are extremely bad. All workers must live in the factories. Those completing their work before night are free to go where they please, but they must return by dark. This means that only a few men get out of the factories except on special occasions. When they finish their work at night, they pull out their roll of bedding, and sleep on the floor, on stray boards laid across the benches, or on the ground in the courtyard.’

The workers were paid very poorly, subject to arbitrary deductions and the robbery of labour gangsters. There were no safety precautions usually so that terrible accidents occurred – for example, in the Oyama pit disaster of 1917, over 1,000 were killed or injured.

Land and Labour in China, R.H. Tawney, London 1932, pp.149-50:

Visitors regularly see children ‘sleeping at night on the floor of the shop, in which lighting is such as to make it certain that the sight of many will be permanently injured; machinery is completely unguarded, the air is loaded with poisonous dust which there is no ventilation to remove, and the buildings are unprovided, in spite of municipal bye laws, with emergency exits, with the result that in the event of fire, some proportion of the workers will almost certainly be burned.’

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Last updated: 20.1.2008