Tag Archives: China

Realizing Their Rights- Growth of Chinese Worker Power

Lately, we’ve been inundated with news about factories all around China and their striking workers. I have found three sources from three different countries. These are The New York Times from the US, The Financial Times from the UK, and The Globe and Mail from Canada.  Excerpted below are portions of articles that are compelling–

For almost two decades very rapid economic growth has been possible partly because of the mass migration of young people from rural areas to the towns driving urbanization and industrialization. But this spring of youth escaping rural drudgery is drying up. The Honda strikers, like the Foxconn suicides, are mostly in their 20s. There is an instinctive realization among them that there is a diminishing number of youths to follow their migrant footsteps. – “China’s Dwindling Resource,” Phillip Bowring

Unlike the first wave of migrants who came to the cities in the 1980s and 1990s, the current batch has more options and higher aspirations. Many are not content to save money for a few years before returning home. They want to settle in the booming cities. That means they need higher wages. If they can’t get them, there are opportunities at home. –Change is finally afoot for China’s workers,” David Pilling

“Workers’ bargaining power is rising as the labour market tightens,” Patrick Lawrence of research firm GaveKal- Dragonomics wrote in a recent report to clients highlighting inflationary pressures in the Chinese economy. The wage increases “remind us that labour tensions are set to become a much bigger issue over the next few years as workers fight for larger paycheques and improved working conditions,” Mr. Lawrence added. –China’s low-cost workers have richer days ahead,” Andy Hoffman

This is a great step forward (not to be confused with a leap) for the Chinese worker. They are not satisfied with what they got before—the workers now want more. With fewer workers in the labor pool, the workers are in a better position to bargain for better working conditions and higher wages. The outlook seems fair enough where workers in China can hope for higher pay and better rights.

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Chinese Foxconn and Foxconnic China

Scandals spread faster than advertisements. Lying on the lower end of the value chain, Foxconn could not have otherwise caught so much attention from the international media. But despite highly concentrated media accusations against Foxconn, the rate of suicide within the company, 20-30 per million workers, is still lower than the national average of 140 per million people. Comparing internationally, the suicide rate of Japan during its economic takeoff was around 250 per million and that of South Korea 260 per million.

This is not so much intended to excuse Foxconn from its scandal, but to draw attention to its broader background and implication. Workers’ salaries and working conditions are undoubtedly one important side of the story, but it is also necessary to reckon with the other side, that is, the need for an apparatus to ease workers’ adaptation to the lifestyle as workers of the manufacturing sector.

The manufacturing and assembly sector is often the least profitable, most polluting and most exploitative part of the value chain, and is increasingly outsourced to emerging economies. Standardized manufacturing makes precision the chief concern of management. The Toyota Model, one of the most successful models of management of high-quality manufacturing, consists of the breaking down of the production line into infinitely small steps each performed by ultra-specialized workers. In other words, the unbearably repetitive nature of Foxconn workers stems not so much from Foxconn’s mistreatment of its employees, but from the nature of high-quality manufacturing management.

The nature of the job may be particularly shocking to Chinese workers. Besides being an industrial worker, each Chinese worker is also an owner and manager of a plot of land in the countryside. Traditionally working as mini-familial entrepreneurs taking charge of all of purchasing, production and marketing, the switch to repetitive manufacturing tasks, though materially beneficial, is in no sense a realization of their full potential. Furthermore, most export factories hire an either predominantly male or predominantly female workforce according to the nature of the job, making it difficult for workers to bring their families near the working site. The living cost in urban areas is too high for low wage immigrant workers to support their families. Coupled with an acute lack of public investment or inter-provincial governmental coordination, making cheap and quality education, social security and health service unaffordable or unavailable to immigrant workers and their family members, a typical worker in the export sector leaves his or her parents, children and spouse back in the countryside. Isolated from their traditional social network, immigrant workers can hardly find a channel to vent or relieve their pressure.

Here the significance of freedom of association comes in. Formal and informal workers’ organizations, which may range from unions and guilds to mahjong friends, are intended not only to struggle for workers’ rights but also to help them establish a new social network to replace the traditional one. To transform the workplace from one where workers do not know each other to one where they are friends of each other has to be in the agenda of union leaders. Ultimately, China has to do away with the strange phenomenon of “immigrant workers,” both through more equitable cross-regional economic development and through public investment in the more developed provinces to fully integrate workers and their families into the community they work in. In the short run, nevertheless, workers’ associations may have to shoulder the responsibility.

Relevant links:

NYT: After Suicides, Scrutiny of China’s Grim Factories

BBC news: Foxconn suicides: ‘Workers feel quite lonely’