China Employment Forum: Focus on decent work for all

At a recent employment forum, China and the ILO adopted a "common understanding" aimed at forging greater cooperation to create more and better jobs as the key to continued development in the world's most populous country. The statement also called on international organizations to actively support putting employment at the centre of their strategies and policies for reducing poverty, and it resolved to extend cooperation between China and the ILO around the Decent Work Agenda on a range of labour market and workplace issues.

BEIJING - Co-hosted by China's Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MOLSS) and the ILO, the China Employment Forum examined issues related to the country's rapid economic growth - including rural unemployment, increasing rural-to-urban migration, and job loss resulting from the closing of some state-owned enterprises - as well as ideas for modernizing labour market governance and coping with the challenges of economic restructuring.

"At present, employment presents a severe challenge for China," Labour Minister Zheng Silin told more than 500 participants at the opening session of the Forum. "The contradiction between the demand for full employment of the working people, and an oversized labour force, mismatching of qualifications with market demand continues to be outstanding, leading to an arduous task of employment and reemployment."

Zheng called employment promotion a "strategic task" which is among the top priorities on the Chinese Government's agenda. "We need to learn from successes and good practices in other countries," he added.

The "common understanding" which emerged from the Forum outlines the pressing need to maintain economic growth and improve labour markets, in order to expand employment opportunities and enhance the quality of employment in China. It notes that respect for fundamental principles and rights at work is a foundation for economic development and social progress.

"Employment and the enjoyment of rights at work should be the first step in addressing poverty and social exclusion," the statement says ( Note 1). "Promoting full employment through social dialogue should be the priority of economic and social policies, so that the labour force can engage in freely chosen productive employment, and obtain secure and sustainable livelihoods."

With regard to promoting better wages and working conditions, the statement outlined seven key elements:

  • Stimulating labour demand by creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship, and promoting the establishment and expansion of small enterprises, including self-employment
  • Strengthening tripartite social dialogue as an important mechanism for preventing and resolving conflicts, contributing to employment promotion and fostering social stability, as well as for enhancing enterprise performance
  • Upgrading knowledge and skills of workers to ensure their higher flexibility and employment security, and prepare them for work in a knowledge-based economy
  • Expansion and refinement of labour market policies for smooth and efficient reallocation of labour, gradual establishment of a unified labour market, and effective assistance to vulnerable groups
  • Encouraging sound enterprise restructuring and productivity upgrading in a smooth and socially acceptable way
  • Reform of the social security system, and gradual extension of social protection to the groups of populations currently excluded from the existing schemes, notably urban workers in flexible forms of employment and the vast rural population
  • Protection of safety and health of workers, as well as environmental protection, should be an integral part of national policy for economic development and employment creation
"China is looking for the right balance of policies that yield economic change with social stability, and we are delighted that China sees the ILO as an institution with whom it can work in partnership along this road," said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "The ILO brings international experience that can be adapted and tested in the Chinese context, and we are ready to engage in deeper cooperation with China on promoting employment, improving workers' rights, enhancing social protection and encouraging social dialogue as, among other things, a way to deal with and prevent labour conflicts."

"Jobs and socioeconomic security for women and men and their families, are at the heart of people's concerns, not only in China but in all countries," Mr. Somavia added. "People want to have the opportunities to work out of poverty."


For China, the pace of change has been dramatic. More than a decade of 10 per cent growth in average output has led to a sustained and rapid improvement in living standards of many Chinese workers. According to the World Bank's latest estimates, extreme poverty has fallen from about 360 million people surviving on US$1 a day or less in 1990, to just over 150 million by the end of last year.

In addition, China has become the locomotive of the economy of the East Asian region, increasing its imports by 40 per cent. In 2003, 18 per cent of Korea's exports, 12 per cent of Japan's and about 7 per cent of the ASEAN nations' were to China. At a time when Europe, North America and Japan have had a slowdown, China's expansion has helped to prevent a global recession.

Yet, while China has been remarkably successful in achieving high and sustained economic growth rates, its economy does not have sufficient capacity to create new jobs for all the current labour market entrants, including laid-off workers from restructured state-owned enterprises and other job seekers, the ILO said in a background paper prepared for the Forum, entitled An Employment Agenda for China.

China's labour force is expected to increase by more than 70 million over the next decade. Millions of laid-off workers and other unemployed people are now seeking re-employment in urban areas. Meanwhile, underemployment in rural areas is high - estimated at almost one-third of the rural labour force. Many rural workers are therefore also seeking new jobs, often in the major cities.

Note 1 - For the full text of the "common understanding", please see