Asia

Behind China's Labor Unrest: Factory Workers and Taxi Drivers


What’s the state of dissent among China’s hundreds of millions of workers? They are increasingly aware of and demanding their rights, according to a new report by the China Labor Bulletin.

There were 1,171 strikes and protests in China recorded by the Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group from June 2011 until the end of last year. Of those, 40 percent occurred among factory workers, as China’s exports suffered a slowdown and its overall economy cooled. “Many manufacturers in China sought to offset their reduced profits by cheating workers out of overtime and cutting back on bonuses and benefits, etc. These cost-cutting tactics proved to be a regular source of conflict with the workforce,” notes the report, “Searching for the Union: The workers’ movement in China 2011-13″ (pdf), which was published on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the report cites a large number of worker protests “caused by the downsizing, closure, relocation, sale or merger of businesses” spurred by the government’s declared policy of tenglong huanniao, or “changing the birds in the cage.” That’s when Beijing has encouraged the closure of factories engaged in lower-tech businesses, including shoes, textiles, and toys. All together, 57 percent of factory worker protests took place in Guangdong, home to the Pearl River Delta manufacturing region, followed by 9 percent in Jiangsu, home to many export factories in the Yangtze River Delta.

Second only to manufacturing workers in their propensity to strike were China’s taxi and bus drivers. Overall, labor unrest in the transport sector made up 26 percent of total incidents, with widespread dissatisfaction expressed about high costs, including gasoline and monthly auto rental fees for taxi drivers. And low wages sparked protests by elementary school teachers, construction and sanitation workers. In all cases, the growth of social media has played a key role among labor activists:

“The ability of workers to organize strikes and protests, especially at larger factories, was enhanced considerably during this period by the rapid development of social media and messaging platforms such Weibo and WeChat, and the widespread availability of cheap, no-brand smartphones.”

China’s official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, still does a bad job representing workers’ interests, according to China Labor Bulletin. “Even after an address by the new Party General Secretary Xi Jinping in October 2013, in which he tried to jolt the union out of its torpor, the ACFTU simply spouted more jargon, platitudes, and archaic rhetoric, ignoring the fundamental problems staring it in the face,” the report concludes. “The reality is that the primary concern of the ACFTU, with 900,000 full-time officials, is its own self-interest.”

Dexter_roberts
Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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