What’s a labor union when the boss is the government? Young Chinese workers are acting to find out.
Keith Richburg highlights, today at The Washington Post, the class consciousness rising and brewing to steam in China:
Shifting demographics, including years of effective population control through the government’s “one child” policy, have left China short of younger workers, particularly in the crucial 15-25 age group that many factories rely on most. These young workers don’t have to travel far from home like their parents did to find work. They are more aware of their rights. And having grown up in a more prosperous China, they are demanding a fairer share.
These young workers are asserting those rights in the form of work stoppages, slowdowns and demands for higher wages and shorter hours. The unrest was highlighted by a strike that began May 17 at Honda’s transmission factory in the city of Foshan, where hundreds of workers walked off the job. The Japanese carmaker had to shut its four assembly plants in China.
In mid-2008, China introduced a labor law that allows workers with grievances to file complaints and opens a new mechanism for mediation. Publication of the law probably made workers more aware of their rights, experts said.
Since the law went into effect, the number of known complaints has doubled to about 700,000, and they “are going up even faster now,” said Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan, an expert on Chinese labor. Businessmen and academics predict that the wave of unrest would probably increase, mainly because of China’s shifting population trends.
The labor unrest poses an acute challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party and a dilemma for the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. That group, China’s only officially sanctioned union, is supposed to represent workers but in practice has worked more as a partner with the government to enforce labor discipline and keep production high.
The Economist, in an article this last weekend, featured the growing movement—noting that “strikes are a big problem for the government” because “they are the managers”. It notes that disputes are up dramatically, adding:
Strikes and protests at factories are becoming more common. Outlook Weekly, an official magazine, reported in December that labour disputes in Guangdong in the first quarter of 2009 had risen by nearly 42% over the same period in 2008. In Zhejiang, a province up the coast, the annualised increase was almost 160%.
Several workers complained that despite paying membership dues of around 10 yuan ($1.50) a month, they had received virtually nothing from the union, least of all help negotiating with managers. But their ability to keep up their strike for nearly two weeks seems to have rattled the government. Normally worker protests dissipate rapidly, with unions usually taking the side of managers. A few days into the Honda strike, however, the party’s propaganda authorities secretly ordered the media to tone down their coverage. They may well have worried that the Honda workers’ tenacity could inspire others (a brief strike did break out at a Hyundai car-parts factory on May 28th).
These articles are in light of Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, said “it will hike wages for assembly line workers there by nearly 70 percent” to the equivalent of roughly $290 per month, the AFP reports today, as awful publicity has followed “a series of suicides at its factories in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen”.
The Shenzhen factories, “with about 400,000 employees, make products for global companies like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard”, David Barboza reports at The New York Times today, experienced its 11th suicide this year.
The Chinese government limits overtime to 36 hours per month, but “several workers interviewed here said they regularly exceeded that by wide margins”, Mr. Barboza adds:
Sociologists and other academics see the deaths as extreme signals of a more pervasive trend: a generation of workers rejecting the regimented hardships their predecessors endured as the cheap labor army behind China’s economic miracle.
Rather than take their own lives, many more workers at Foxconn—tens of thousands more—have simply quit. In recent interviews here, employees said the typical Foxconn hire lasted just a few months at the factory before leaving, demoralized.
They complain about military-style drills, verbal abuse by superiors and “self-criticisms” they are forced to read aloud, as well as occasionally being pressured to work as many 13 consecutive days to complete a big customer order — even when it means sleeping on the factory floor.
Sociologists say China’s new generation of migrant workers—many of them born in the 1990s—are better educated and more conscious of their rights. And their ambivalence about factory life coincides with a demographic shift that has resulted in a decline in the number of young people entering the work force.
Obviously, suicide is a radical act and one’s job, alone, is never the root cause. Mr. Barboza adds that the specific workers had other issues directly harming their psychological well being and settlements with suicide survivors might have encouraged future suicides. But it ought not be ignored that “many of our lives are much more governed by non-governmental organizations—the workplace, our families, schools—than the state apparatus”, as I recently noted.
Young people dominate this suicidal mini-demographic, but more encouraging, it dominates the extent of whatever solidarity movement is brewing in China. Because there is no illusory separation of State of economy, the illusion that acquiring government power seems secondary to organizing and taking direct action. How far this consciousness will take these young workers is a blank guess, but considering what they risk, I hope that this spirit grows to change the zeitgeist and becomes an element of global inspiration for how new orders are developed.