A new generation of migrant workers are getting organised in a fight to improve low pay and poor conditions.

4 Jul 2010

He Zongjun earns 1 mao (1p) for each of the 1000 vuvuzelas he moulds on a 12-hour night shift at the Jiying Plastic Products factory near Shanghai. His boss Wu Yijun stopped production of vuvuzelas in April but resumed last month to meet an unexpected surge in global orders for the popular droning trumpets being heard throughout the World Cup football matches in South Africa.

“I don’t watch the World Cup. I need to sleep after working a whole night,” he told the Chinese government’s Xinhua news agency.

The migrant worker from the southwestern province of Yunnan, one of China’s poorest regions, earns up to 3000 yuan (£300) a month, based on the piecework rate given by the agency. The long hours and tough conditions mean he earns up to three times the wages of many Chinese labourers.

The company sold about one million of the estimated 50 million vuvuzelas exported this year from China, which accounts for 90% of the global total, Wu said. But he said it was still struggling to recruit more staff to add to the 40 working on the new orders, despite raising the piecework rate by 25%.

Labour is too cheap in China and the rest of Asia, making it difficult to shift to a consumption-led growth model

Analysts say a highly publicised series of recent strikes among Chinese factory workers have raised expectations in a labour market where some regions are already short of skilled workers.

Nearly 2000 workers walked out in late May at the Honda Auto Parts plant in the southern city of Foshan, Guangdong province, the region at the heart of China’s manufacturing boom over the past 30 years. The two-week strike paralysed Honda car production in China and resulted in the workers getting a 25% pay rise to a standard rate of 2000 yuan (£200) per month.

In the past three months, strikes have also hit another Honda supplier in Foshan, a Hyundai plant in Beijing, a Toyota factory in Guangdong, a rubber plant in the northern city of Tianjin, and a large cotton mill in central China’s Pindingshan city. This week hundreds of staff stopped work at the Mitsumi Electric plant in Tianjin, demanding a big increase on the 1500 yuan (£150) a month they can earn for a 70-hour, six-day week.

“Strikes may happen in virtually every corner of China, particularly in the more developed parts,” said Chang-Hee Lee, an industrial relations expert with the International Labour Organisation in Beijing.

“Our research indicates that most strikes involve between a few hundred and a few thousand workers,” said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “Anything bigger than that, it tends to be more difficult to organise everybody. Anything smaller than that, the boss is in a more advantageous position to disrupt things,” Crothall said.

The use of security guards or hired thugs to break up smaller strikes or workers’ protests is “not uncommon”, he said. “You’re more likely to see that kind of violent incident – the boss hiring thugs to break up a strike – than, certainly, workers initiating violence.”

He said the ruling Communist Party usually takes a hands-off approach to the strikes and local authorities “just keep a watch” because most strikes are seen as “purely economic” conflicts that do not challenge the government. Although the party controls all news outlets, state media ran the first reports on most of the recent strikes, a sign that the government does not see the strikes as a challenge to its authority.

China Labour Bulletin was set up to support Chinese workers by Han Dongfang, the exiled former leader of an independent trade union in China’s 1989 democracy movement.

In an interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1989 protests, which ended after a brutal military crackdown, Han said he saw a small sign of progress in the greater tolerance of the government towards technically illegal industrial action. Some striking workers are sacked but few are arrested by local police anymore, he said.

Lee says a new phase of industrial relations in China began with public consultations on an employment contract law introduced in 2008.

“It was a hugely controversial process because it created a lot of debate … pro-worker, pro-capital debate,” he said. “So through this process workers became aware that there was going to be a new law that would provide much better protection of their labour rights.”

The benefits of the law for protecting employment rights were especially clear to younger members of China’s pool of more than 200 million migrant workers, Lee said.

“The young migrant workers are, generally speaking, better educated than their parents’ generation so they’re more likely to know their rights,” he said. “And the second factor is that they’re different from their parents’ generation, who had a dream of going back to their home villages with a lot of money made in the city. The young-generation workers dream of a better life in the city. But the reality they face is very different from what they dream of, and that gap between the dream and the reality pushed them to take action.”

The recent strikes followed news of 13 separate suicide attempts this year at a vast Foxconn electronics plant in the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. A total of 10 of the young Foxconn workers died, provoking a debate about how much the highly regimented conditions for the 300,000 workers at the Taiwan-owned plant, which has customers such as Apple and Dell, were to blame.

The Foxconn suicides and the strikes were “unrelated incidents but the causes were similar … low pay, long working hours, absence of channels to redress their grievances, and trade union branches that exist only in name”, said Anita Chan, a researcher on labour in China at the University of ­Technology in Sydney.

The Honda workers were “well organised, strategic and assertive”, Chan said in a commentary in the official China Daily newspaper. “The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has realised that the Honda strike is a different form of labour protest, not least because it goes to the heart of a problem: what is the union’s legitimate role.”

ACFTU was originally “perceived as part of the state”, like trade unions in other socialist states, but has found it difficult to “adapt to the environment of market-based employment legislation”, Lee said.

“Often union leadership at the enterprise level is under heavy influence of employers or even composed of senior managers of the enterprise.”

The striking Honda Auto Parts workers elected their own representatives and condemned the plant’s ACFTU-affiliated union officials for scuffling with some of the strikers and issuing a public apology for the strike.

“Our struggle for rights is not a struggle to protect the mere interests of 1800 workers. We are concerned with the rights and interests of the workers in the whole country,” the Honda workers said in a statement.

A letter of support for the Honda and Foxconn workers has reopened the long-standing divisions among the 78 million members of the Communist Party between its pragmatic majority and the “old Left”, loyal to its roots under Mao Zedong. Five retired officials and scholars issued an appeal drenched in Marxist rhetoric.

“For the past 30 years, China has relied on several hundred million cheap workers from rural areas to create this export-oriented ‘world factory’ and to bring about consistent, rapid growth in China’s economy,” they said.

“At the same time, workers’ basic rights have long been neglected. From the Foxconn tragedy, we hear screams coming from the lives of new-generation migrant workers, warning the entire society to rethink this development model leveraged upon the sacrifice of people’s basic dignity.”

About one-quarter of Chinese ­workers have not had a pay rise in five years, despite double-digit economic growth and consumer-price inflation, according to an ACFTU survey, while China has one the world’s largest income gaps between its tens of millions of super-rich and the rest of its 1.3 billion people.

The People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper, carried an editorial last month saying: “The time has come to narrow the gulf between rich and poor, which is stifling consumer demand here.” Premier Wen Jiabao weighed in with a call for the country to “treat young migrant workers as they would treat their own children”.

“China has become one of the most unequal societies in terms of income distribution,” Lee said. “The government is trying to redress income distribution issues by policy intervention. At the same time, it realises that workers’ bargaining power is also crucial for rebalancing the distribution at the enterprise level.”

But predictions of a workers’ uprising or a flight of multinational manufacturers from China look premature in a nation whose leaders appear determined to do everything in their power to maintain Communist Party rule.

“The change should be welcomed,” Ben Simpfendorfer, a Hong Kong-based China economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, said of the rising wages. “Labour is too cheap in China and the rest of Asia, making it difficult to shift to a consumption-led growth model,” Simpfendorfer said.

“I expect to see continuous improvement of working conditions and wages because China is developing so fast and also the workers are becoming increasingly capable of pushing for better wages and working conditions, either through collective action, like a strike, or through collective bargaining,” Lee said. “But I don’t think this new trend of strikes will unsettle the development of the labour market system in China. There may be a continuous number of strikes by workers in the auto sector, the electronics sector or whatever, but it is still not going to unsettle the entire labour relations system in China.”

Crothall said that although labour activism is increasing, there are no signs of attempts to set up industry-wide independent trade unions.

Any such attempt would most likely lead to the arrest of the organisers, following the example of Liu Xiaobo, a dissident writer who co-organised the Charter ‘08 for democratic reform. In December Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.

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