China is the big business story of the 21st century, but is it also the big labor story?
A new report on China’s labor movement, covering about 1,170 strikes and other labor actions from mid-2011 through 2013, illuminates how what is arguably the world’s biggest proletariat is growing more agitated and polarized.
Despite China’s seemingly miraculous economic boom, in many ways, its emergent labor struggles are strikingly similar to those experienced by workers in more developed economies: weak-to-zero collective bargaining rights, a lack of social and health protections, the poverty and instability facing interregional migrant labor, global economic volatility and consequent job insecurity. And of course, that’s all in a fractious atmosphere of breakneck national growth rates, greater economic ambitions among the working class and soaring inequality.
Manufacturing workers are feeling the tension between middle-class aspirations and working-class problems, and many are growing increasingly militant in asserting their labor rights. The report’s author, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) observes that the shift is driven by a deepening sense of social rights on the political and economic fronts, including “earning a living wage, creating a safe work environment and being treated with dignity and respect by the employer.”
The rising militancy (and even class consciousness) across the industrial workforce is being facilitated by the expansion of digital communications networks — as more workers begin to enjoy the tech gadgets they’ve been producing for rich countries all these years — as well as the destabilization of workers under volatile global trade flows. CLB reports: “Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries. Some 40 percent of the strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin from mid-2011 to the end of 2013 were in the manufacturing sector.”
Without a free media or independent unions, it’s hard to tell how unified China’s workers are or can be, but CLB describes bread-and-butter struggles at various multinational factories, as well as public sector workforces such as teachers battling wage arrears and sanitation workers denied social insurance.
In March 2013, a strike erupted at the Nanhai Honda plant in Guangdong, involving 100 production-line workers who rejected an offer of a 10 percent raise after learning that senior employees had been offered nearly 20 percent. After the government intervened in the negotiations, CLB reports, “the strikers agreed to a revised offer of 14.4 percent, about 310 yuan per month, plus a housing subsidy of 50 yuan.” The workers and the managers may well have learned the hard lessons from a pioneering Nanhai Honda strike in May 2010, which made international headlines and, according to CLB “catapulted the workers’ movement in China into high gear.”
And as with the U.S. labor movement, the auto industry may prove to be a bastion of worker unrest and mobilization. A recent article in Asia-Pacific Journal describes the Honda strike as part of a global and historical trend toward workers exercising collective power at key points in the global production chain, especially in highly integrated industries like cars.
Electronics, which has a similarly interdependent relationship between suppliers and buyers, has also been a hotbed of Chinese worker action. Labor scandals in that supply chain pose a unique problem for Western tech companies: The hyper-clean, slickly globalized image of Silicon Valley contrasts tragically with oppressive working conditions, such as those surrounding the spate of worker suicides at the factory compounds run by the infamous Apple supplier Foxconn. One young worker wrote a poetically glib letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou:
If you don’t wish your company to again be called by people a sweatshop,
Please use the last bit of a humanitarian eye to observe us.
Please allow us the last bit of human self-esteem.
Don’t let your hired ruffians hunt for our bodies and belongings,
Don’t let your hired ruffians harass female workers,
Don’t let your lackeys take every worker for the enemy,
Don’t arbitrarily berate or, worse, beat workers for one little error.
Yet beyond the occasional angry poem, workers are lacking direct channels for airing grievances. Although China is technically home to the world’s largest union organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the many spontaneous strikes and protests of recent years reveal that the state-run labor bureaucracy, while not completely an arm of the government, has largely been ineffective in responding to workers’ intensifying needs and demands.
Geoff Crothall of the CLB tells In These Times via email that while the ACFTU has failed many workers, the rank-and-file are developing a greater sense of political agency:
We have seen some officials in municipal and provincial trade union federations take a more pro-active stance but it will take ordinary workers to get involved to really push for change for any significant movement to occur. It is very early stages at present but [based on] talking to some of the workers at labor rights groups in Guangdong, they do understand that reclaiming the union for the workers is the most beneficial long-term strategy for the workers movement.
CLB found that in their pursuit of “better pay and conditions,” workers are bypassing traditional trade union organizing entirely in favor of organizing actions themselves.
At the multinational Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen, for instance, workers rose up after becoming frustrated with their union leader, whom they believed “had failed to live up to the much-hyped expectations of the trade union election held just nine months earlier in May 2012. The election had been organized with the help of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions and was seen as a showcase of the federation’s democratic reforms.” They then posted a petition at the factory entrance “demanding the ouster of their trade union chairman,” soon gathered more than 100 signatures, and then, publicly defying their designated leader, “took their demands to the district trade union for action.”
One worker told the local press, “We don’t want a union chairman who is partial towards the employer. We want to elect a chairman who can speak up for us.” (That summer, as Working In These Times reported previously, undercover student researchers revealed that often the supposedly democratic elections at factories had failed to really improve workplace conditions.)
But in the absence of a genuinely pro-worker union structure, the report notes, “One of the most intractable obstacles to the development of the workers’ movement in China thus far has been the inability of workers to maintain the solidarity and momentum created by isolated victories in the workplace.”
The CLB report highlights the work of grassroots labor advocates, such as the Panyu Service Centre for Migrant Workers in Guangzhou. As a community-based NGO, they lack the formal authority of a union, but in 2012, the group helped workers at two jewelry factories win major back payments for unpaid social insurance premiums. It has also helped sanitation workers claim unpaid social insurance premiums from the local government. They recently published a Code of Collective Bargaining, which CLB describes as “a possible template for collective bargaining legislation in the future,” providing basic guidelines for structured labor-management negotiations.
Ultimately, the reclaiming of the union from state and corporate power depends on how workers’ raised consciousness evolves into more systemic mass action and internal union reforms. But it looks like China’s capitalist miracle has opened the potential for its working masses to create the century’s labor miracle as well.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.