Global Economics

The Rise of a Chinese Worker's Movement


A nondescript Beijing suburb was recently the venue for an evening of radical politics. The New Labor Art Troupe, a performance group with a cast of laborers, ran a graphic photo of a Foxconn worker who had just killed himself. Poems were read commemorating the hard lives of migrant workers in electronics factories and on construction sites. A guitar and harmonica were hauled out and songs were sung with titles like Marginalized Life, Industrial Zone, Working Is Our Glory and Our Hell, Get Back Our Wages, and Fighting in Solidarity. Some of the hundred or so assembled migrant workers, many of them employed in small furniture factories around the capital, started crying. The evening ended with the crowd standing up for a Chinese rendition of the The Internationale, the old battle hymn of the worldwide socialist movement. "The atmosphere was militant, but there was no overt criticism of the government," says University of Hawaii political scientist Eric Harwit, who attended the two hour-plus evening performance on May 28. "They seemed really sincere that they were upset about migrant labor working conditions."

The recent Beijing performance is just one example of the rising labor activism now evident in China, activism that asserted itself in recent weeks at the factories of Foxconn and Honda Motor (HMC). It includes groups like New Labor, yet it also encompasses legal aid and other support networks at scores of universities, law firms focused on promoting worker rights, and countless migrant worker aid associations. "Civil society organizations are growing more powerful. They will push China to change," says Li Fan, director of the Beijing-based nongovernmental organization World & China Institute. Li has worked closely with labor groups as well as those pushing grassroots democracy.

The question is whether these groups can spawn a workers' movement that has the organization and mass to challenge factory owners across the country. Until a few years ago the Chinese authorities broke up sporadic workers' protests with relative ease: Local officials arrested a few ringleaders, then quickly offered concessions to the rest of the strikers to stop the unrest. Above all else, the Chinese security apparatus made sure that the leaders of labor protests in Shenzhen, Harbin, and elsewhere didn't connect with each other to form a national movement.

Today's young workers may be harder to corral. China now has 787 million mobile-phone users and 348 million Internet users—and migrant workers in their twenties are far more aware of world developments than their parents. The younger generation can follow labor actions as they unfold, whether in China's northeastern Rust Belt or southern Pearl River Delta. "They have access to information. They use their mobile phones for messaging, to send pictures and video, and to go online," says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences journalism professor Bu Wei, who is researching the use of media by migrant workers.

The more assertive workers have also benefited from a huge push by China's state-run media to popularize knowledge about the tough labor contract law promulgated in 2008. As a result, young workers know what's owed them, whether it be guarantees of double pay for overtime or safer working conditions. "Every worker is a labor lawyer by himself. They know their rights better than my HR officer," says Frank Jaeger, a German factory owner who produces cable connectors in Dongguan in Guangdong Province. Adds Harley Seyedin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce of South China: "There are Internet cafés everywhere, so the workers can get information. They are starting to ask for more. The days of cheap labor are gone."

The workers' ranks are now filled with self-starters like Xu Haitao. A 28-year-old technician in a small metal components factory in Shenzhen, Xu takes a class on labor law and worker rights every Sunday at a local migrant workers support center. "Of course, more and more workers understand their rights these days," says Xu, who surfs labor law sites regularly. "Last year I started using my own computer. Computers are not expensive anymore. I bought the pieces and constructed my own." Xu wants more workers to educate themselves. "Many capitalists and factory managers still abuse our rights," he says. "If all the workers knew the labor law—all 600 million of us—then many factory owners would go bankrupt."

These self-educated workers now have new allies in China's universities. A decade-long effort by Beijing to expand the number of students in China's universities has brought more and more of the rural population—and those with relatives and friends who still work in the factories—onto Chinese campuses. That has driven a wave of support at colleges for migrant workers, points out CASS professor Bu. Students studying law, political science, and social science are forming support groups and even provide legal aid for workers, to a degree not seen before. One of Bu's graduate students, for example, has a brother working for the Foxconn facility near Shanghai.

Many faculty members support their students' activism. "From the Foxconn tragedy, we hear screams coming from the lives of a new generation of migrant workers, warning the entire society to rethink this development model leveraged upon the sacrifice of people's basic dignity," warned an open letter dated May 19 and signed by nine sociologists from prominent schools, including Peking and Tsinghua Universities. "We call for national and local governments to implement practical measures that allow migrant workers to integrate and establish roots in the city...sharing the fruits of economic development they themselves created."

It may be a long summer for Chinese officials trying to contain this unrest. On June 3 more than 20 women workers were detained when police tried to shut down a two-week strike at a formerly state-owned cotton mill in Pingdingshan, Henan. Thousands of workers had stopped operating the looms to express their anger at their factory's privatization and to demand higher wages, reports the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. Although workers are back on the line at the Honda transmission plant that strikers had shut down, their language is anything but conciliatory. "We call all workers to maintain a high degree of unity and not to allow the capitalists to divide us," the Honda workers declared in a statement released on June 3. "We are not simply struggling for the rights of 1,800 workers, but for the rights of workers across the whole country." On June 7, another Honda plant in China went on strike.

The bottom line: A new, savvier, and more militant generation of workers may start to form a genuine labor movement in China.

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

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