Thanks to the two different readers who pointed me to this great article in the Washington Post on the new militancy of many factory workers in China who are refusing to simply take what they’re given.
Heralded by an unprecedented series of walkouts, the first stirrings of unrest have emerged among the millions of youthful migrant workers who supply seemingly inexhaustible cheap labor for the vast expanse of factories in China’s booming Pearl River Delta.
The signs of newly assertive Chinese workers have jolted foreign and Chinese factory owners, who for the last two decades have churned out everything from Nikes to baby dolls with unbeatably low production costs. Some have concluded that the raw era in which rootless Chinese villagers would accept whatever job they could get may be drawing to a close, raising questions about China’s long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing.
“One dollar, two dollars, it used to be they didn’t care,” said Tom Stackpole, originally from Massachusetts, who is quality control director here for Skechers USA Inc. and has been involved in shoe manufacturing in southern China for a decade. “That has passed.”
Stella International Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer employing 42,000 people in and around Dongguan, faced strikes this spring that turned violent. At one point, more than 500 rampaging workers sacked company facilities and severely injured a Stella executive, leading hundreds of police to enter the factory and round up ringleaders.
“We never had anything like that before,” said Jack Chiang, Stella’s chief executive.
This poses a huge dilemma for a government whose very existence is founded on its standing up for the workers. As the article notes, due to the ultra-intrusive approach the CCP takes to business, they have their tentacles inextricably entwined in the very businesses against whom the poor workers are making demands. So do they go against their own financial self-interest — and against their rich supporters who profit handsomely from these businesses — or do they choose to go against those they’re supposed to protect? And, of course, if labor costs in the Pearl River business zone soar, that can pose a big threat to China’s greatest commodity, dirt-cheap labor.
The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations.
“The government is the largest boss in the area,” said Liu Kaiming, a labor analyst and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in nearby Shenzhen.
This is just one more headache for a government that faces staggering challenges, but how it’s resolved will be extremely interesting to watch. No doubt they’ll try to negotiate some give-and-take that will cause minimal pain to all involved — but someone’s going to be left unsatisfied, and my guess is it’ll be the workers.
People have been saying for years that the “two Chinas” phenomenon would be the government’s undoing. They’ll figure out a short-term solution as they always do, but this is really the mega-ton elephant lurking in the corner of China’s living room, the one no one wants to talk about though everyone knows it’s there.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.