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Manufacturing dissent in China

Geoff Crothall reports on the remarkable success of workers’ movements in China

December 4, 2012
10 min read

An employee in Foxconn uniform (right), looks out from a restaurant during lunch break near a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Photo: Reuters

In May 2010, electronics giant Foxconn was rocked by a series of worker suicides at its vast manufacturing complex in the southern Chinese boom town of Shenzhen. The tragic deaths of a dozen young workers focused global attention on the plight of the hitherto anonymous men and women who make the electronic gadgets the world takes for granted.

Two years later, on 27 May 2012, workers at another less well-known electronics factory in Shenzhen elected a new trade union chairman to represent them in negotiations with management. This event passed largely unnoticed by the international media – but in terms of the development of the workers’ movement in China, it was just as important as the Foxconn tragedies. And while the Foxconn suicides portrayed Chinese workers as the victims of global corporate greed, the trade union elections at the Japanese-owned Ohms Electronics showed that workers were aware of their rights and entitlements and determined to fight together for them.

Unlike the vast majority of trade union ‘elections’ in China, in which the result is manipulated or controlled by the boss, the Ohms election was open and democratic and the eventual winner was an ordinary production line worker. Moreover, the official trade union in Shenzhen actually encouraged the democratic process and did not seek to impose its own candidates on the workforce, as had routinely been the case in the past.

The election happened not because of global concern about corporate abuses but because the workers themselves demanded it. Two months earlier, the entire 700-strong workforce had gone on strike to demand higher pay and better benefits as well as the right to democratically elect a new union chairman who would properly represent their interests.

The pay demands were eventually resolved through negotiation, the workers agreed to return to work and a preparatory committee to organise the trade union elections was established.

Collective success

Of course, not all protests by workers in China are as successful as the Ohms strike, but nevertheless collective action has remained at a consistently high level for the past year and is getting results. China’s workers understand that determined collective action can, at the very least, force bosses to make concessions and get the local authorities to pay attention to their demands.

While some employers continue to play hardball, more and more bosses, especially in the manufacturing sector, realise that their employees are in a much stronger bargaining position than they used to be, and that a long, drawn-out strike would be bad for business. Local governments too, under pressure from their superiors in Beijing to maintain the appearance of stability, are now just as likely to pressure employers into making concessions as they are to coerce strikers into returning to work.

China’s factories, which have traditionally relied on a steady supply of young migrant workers from the Chinese countryside, have seen that supply dwindle as fewer new employees enter the workforce – a direct consequence of China’s three-decade-old one child policy. Moreover, those young men and women who are going into the factories are less willing to accept the pay and working conditions their parents endured for so many years.

This new generation of migrant workers are generally better educated and have higher aspirations than their parents. Many do not see themselves as migrants at all but as city dwellers like everyone else, looking to get ahead in life, find a decent job, get married and raise a family. To realise their dreams they of course need money and the wages offered by many small and medium‑sized factories are simply not sufficient. Spurred by increasing living costs, factory workers are demanding higher pay. Those factories that cannot afford to pay have gradually lost their workers and gone out of business.

Workers’ demands are not limited to a decent wage. At the heart of many protests is a desire to eradicate the unfair, illegal and exploitative work practices that have been the norm in the industry over the past two decades. Workers have demanded the full and prompt payment of overtime and social security contributions, safe working conditions and proper compensation when they are injured at work. They have organised to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect, as human beings, not merely as units of production. They’ve demanded decent food in the factory canteen, time off when needed and an end to arbitrary punishments and other abusive management practices such as limiting toilet breaks.

Challenging the unions

All these demands have been made directly by workers during strike action or as part of other protests; they have not generally been made by the trade union supposedly representing their interests. In most cases their union stood on the sidelines and let the workers take their own action; in other cases it sided with management and sought to cajole strikers into ending their protests. Workers quickly realised that the union was useless and sought to replace it with a more effective, democratically elected body.

All too often, these demands were ignored or obstructed by the official trade union, which has branches or federations at each level of local government in China. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when the Shenzhen municipal trade union federation announced not only the free, open and democratic election at Ohms in May but also its plans to hold another 163 such elections during the rest of the year. The vice-chairman of the Shenzhen federation, Wang Tongxin, even encouraged workers to learn about democracy first-hand and stressed that they should not be afraid of making mistakes. ‘You must give workers time to learn about democracy because democracy is a process,’ he said.

But while the Ohms election does seem to have been a success, there is no guarantee that the promised 163 others will also be so. Progress has certainly been made in the development of workplace democracy but there is still a long way to go. There is a danger that the Shenzhen trade union federation will revert to bad habits and simply see the elections as a quota to be fulfilled without giving any thought as to whether the elections are fair or if the trade union officials elected have the mandate to properly represent their members.

The demand and need for properly functioning trade unions is always strongest where labour/management conflicts are acute and where workers are determined to stand and fight. The evidence of the past few years shows that Chinese workers are increasingly willing and able to organise themselves in these conflict situations and demand change. In the past workers were often reluctant to be identified as activists, but now young workers in particular have much greater confidence in their ability and the justness of their cause.

The use of social media has been instrumental in many labour disputes with workers setting up online discussion groups and providing real-time updates on their microblogs. On 8 May this year, for example, workers at a shoe factory in the Pearl River Delta came out on strike after their monthly bonus was slashed. One worker posted news of the strike on his microblog and, after China Labour Bulletin reposted the news, around five local newspaper reporters showed up at the factory demanding to know what was going on. Soon afterwards the boss agreed to raise the bonus offered from 100 yuan to 300 yuan and the strikers returned to work.

Maintaining unity

The key problem at present is not the workers’ ability to organise but rather that solidarity created during disputes often vanishes once a particular issue is resolved. Sometimes strike leaders are sacked or bought off by management; other activists simply leave a factory of their own volition. And this is precisely why workers are now demanding that they be allowed to establish genuine democratic and representative trade unions so that they can maintain an effective voice in the workplace to address members’ complaints and grievances.

Workers will face huge hurdles in achieving this goal, which is why it is crucial that the official trade unions get on board and support the aspirations of ordinary factory workers rather than seeking to control the election process. As the labour scholar Wang Jiangsong has pointed out in the Chinese-language journal Collective Bargaining Research:

‘The union federations need to promote awareness among the workers of the significance of and procedures for direct union elections, take the lead in setting up preparatory committees for union elections, and more. This will require trade union federations to have awareness of their long-term interests and to give up some short-term goals; to sacrifice some immediate power and interests in order to win the long-term support of workers and grassroots unions.’

Migrant workers

Not all Chinese workers are in a position to push for their own trade union. The economic slowdown this year has meant that many small and medium-sized factories in the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang, the traditional engine room of China’s labour-intensive, low-cost export industry, are closing down and laying off thousands of workers. Groups of migrant workers can now be seen sleeping rough on the streets of Yiwu, the Zhejiang town famous for producing cheap clothing and Christmas ornaments. Business leaders in Yiwu claim the situation there is even worse than during the financial crisis of 2008, with the number and value of export orders from Europe down considerably compared with last year. The managing director of one arts and crafts business said European customers were simply not ordering any Christmas ornaments that cost more than three yuan (about 30p) a piece; 90 per cent of their orders were for goods costing between one and two yuan.

Many migrant workers who have lost their jobs are now making their way back to their home towns in inland China to search for employment there. And there are concerns that this re-migration of labour back to the central and western provinces of China (which has been underway for well over a year now) might erode some of the gains made by workers in the coastal provinces and stifle the momentum of the workers’ movement.

It has been thought that the lower cost of living in these areas will reduce workers’ need for, and subsequently demands for, higher wages. However, recent evidence suggests otherwise. Wage demands in the hinterland are now not too far behind the coastal regions. Moreover, the shift in production towards regions that have traditionally supplied migrant labour to the coastal provinces might also have the effect of broadening the workers’ movement into a more sustainable social movement.

When labour disputes occur in factories staffed primarily by migrant workers with no links to the local community, the dispute is effectively limited to the enterprise itself. The workers have to rely on themselves without any direct support from their families and community. However, when factories are located closer to the workers’ home area, those workers will have the advantage of proximate social and kinship networks to support their demands. As we have seen in Europe and America over the past century, when local communities get actively involved in labour disputes, their social, economic and even political impact can be magnified many times.

Geoff Crothall is online editor for the China Labour Bulletin

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