China’s factory workers standing up for themselves?

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

“One dollar, two dollars, it used to be they just don’t care”. LOL. I guess he thinks Chinese peasants and labourers used to come to his factory for the fun of it.

November 27, 2004 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

But I understand the guy’s point: The Chinese migrant workers are famous for working for notoriously low wages. Even in the US in the early 1900s, “coolie” scabs were often used to break the backs of strikers because the Chinese were willing to work for insanely low wages. They didn’t show up at the factory for fun, but they were willing to work hard for a mere pittance.

Once they realize that they themselves are the most important part of China’s economic miracle, the CCP will feel very threatened indeed.

November 27, 2004 @ 6:30 pm | Comment

It is ironic that a newspaper like washington post will publish an article so much on the left.

Frankly, I do not see much with the situation described in the article. The workers can have strike. They can leave whenever they want if they do not like the pay. There is nobody forcing them to take those jobs. What more do they want?

They are paid by a market price. If they have more skills, they will be paid more. What are they complaining about?

This article is actually advocating the views from old communist school. What the WaPo is doing these days?

November 27, 2004 @ 9:36 pm | Comment

wow steve,
“what are they complaining about?” let me think… hmmm they’re probably thinking “hey if we are the origine of the whole chinese economic miracle, and if companies are making so much profit because of us, how come we don’t get our piece of the cake and get a little(ridiculously tiny) raise?”
But you have probably never been hungry or needy in your life,huh?
wait, wait…if i think hard enough i can find more reasons for them not merely walking away from their jobs: family relying on their meagre wage, no health insurance, no social protection whatsoever. You are right they are not skilled labour, therefore they don’t get much chance of being offered better jobs, right?
Communism might be irrealistic but market-economy is selfish and hypocritical, you don’t need to come to China to realise that.

November 28, 2004 @ 1:51 am | Comment

… hmmm they’re probably thinking “hey if we are the origine of the whole chinese economic miracle, and if companies are making so much profit because of us, how come we don’t get our piece of the cake and get a little(ridiculously tiny) raise?”

This kind of thought is from old-communist school. Similar themes include: labor create the world; value is created by labor and capitalist exploit the labor. All nonsense.

As long as labor is free to quit and free to strike, what he is paid is a free market price. Asking for more pay using moral argument is the old tricks used by people on the left.

The viewpoint from WaPo is so much similar to that held by people missing Mao’s years. Is that ironic?

November 28, 2004 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

A few months ago i was listrning to NPR. An American woman in her 80′s was being interviewed and she had come to China decades ago, in the time of Mao. She was a devout communist/socialist and was bemoaning the fate of the communist system and how things were better under Mao.
The interviewer did not ask if she knew or believed that Mao/communist party was responsible for the death of millions. And I expect that there are many in China who have been left behind in the era of “prosperity” that might feel the same and miss the days of the “iron rice bowl”

November 28, 2004 @ 1:54 pm | Comment

I don’t think the days of the iron rice bowl or ‘old-communist school’ have anything to do with this story. The question here is quite simply one of exploitation and morality. The workers in question deserve better, but as we often say in New Zealand, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’. If the walk away from their jobs, they lose everything.

Yes, they are free to strike or quit or just keep working at these ‘market rates’. This amoral argument is the same old trick used by affluent capitalists to absolve themselves of any responsibility or maybe even guilt for the plight of those less fortunate. The fact is ‘the market’ is not fair and does not produce fair rates. The fact is ‘the market’ is skewed towards those with money, and therefore power, and will always produce better outcomes for those who already have more. What is so wrong with a little government intervention to guaruntee them a fair wage, a safe workplace and access to adequate healthcare and education? What’s wrong with ensuring they won’t be forced into poverty should they be prevented from working by injury, illness or old age?

My apologies for sounding all Marxist all of a sudden. I’m now going to go and wave my red flag.

November 28, 2004 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

Chris, you are absolutely 100 percent right. Steve is being absurd, and I want to think that he is joking. His “Let them eat cake” attitude is scary as hell.

November 28, 2004 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

wait for me chris, i want to join you with my own little red flag too.

November 28, 2004 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

That American old lady is amazing, abandoning her top nuclaer scientist job in Chicago to join the communist movement in China , working alone in a dairy farm in rural peking for so many years and she’s still there. What a cutely silly idealist.

Thank for that goddarned Chinese firewall , 5 out of 7 days I can’t read this blog , ditto for all other blogs and google.

November 29, 2004 @ 3:39 am | Comment

I’d love to see Steve organise a strike at one of those factories, and maybe find himself facing armed police.
He talks about the market price as if this means people automatically get a fair deal. Markets have nothing to do with fairness, they simply reflect the balance of power between buyers and sellers.
The only reason Steve can make the kinds of comments he does is because he doesn’t believe he will ever find himself in same situation as those workers. I wonder if he realises what would happen if they attempted to strike.

November 29, 2004 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

Peter, of course you’re right. But some people will go to any length, no matter how absurd, to convince themselves the policies of the CCP are wise and magnanimous. No rationalizing with them.

November 29, 2004 @ 6:41 pm | Comment

Richard,

What I have said may sound absurd to you, but not to republican folks. Raising minimum wage and benefit will lead to job loss. Sounds familar?

On the balance, people on the left has a wrong recipe for economy, from Mao’s iron rice bowl to democrate’s strong union policy. The US manufacturing is going down to the tubes in the area with strong labor union.

Peter, you stated that,

“I’d love to see Steve organise a strike at one of those factories, and maybe find himself facing armed police. ”

That is simply nonsense. Strike is allowed in Guangdong. People can leave and can strikes. There are numerous strike in Guangdong. Sometimes CCP actually step in and help those workers. In some cases CCP does side with factory owner if there is property damage.

In CCP, there is a far-left camp championed by ex-propaganda minister Deng Liquen. He is quite symphetic of the plight of those peasants and is suppressed by current CCP. Are you glad to know that he is in your camp?

You have a good piont that “market has nothing to do with fairness”. Ha, that is why socialism is so appealing, because it claim to favor fairness over market. Market is brutal, but it squeezes out efficiency.

Finally, I have to say that I do not object social welfare. Anyway, I am still poor. My point is that, some people are against CCP simply for the sake of anti-CCP. The WaPo’s article is case in point. They are not analyzing the situation objectively, intentionally or unintentionally.

CCP was indeed bad in old days. Hey, Spanish inquisition burned thousands of people, let alone millions of peopel died from crusade war. Today, Rome catholic is till quite respectable. So far, I think CCP is doing most right things.

November 29, 2004 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

‘My point is that, some people are against CCP simply for the sake of anti-CCP.”
I don’t understand. Is siding with the migrants and chinese peasants anti-CCP? What happened to “serve the People” CCP ideal, huh? These people represent the majority of the country, they brought the CCP to power, originally the CCP is NOTHING without the Chinese peasants.
What I see is the CCP is turning his back on the majority of Chinese people while pretending to serve them. That’s called hypocrisy.

November 29, 2004 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

Cryystal,

Let’s be realistic. Ok, let’s be sympathetic to those peasants. Order all factory pay good wages and health care. Is that what you would like to see?

So, what is next? Job will be GONE! Do you know that for many factory, their profit magin is less than 5%? You are just repeating those old socialist crap. Please try to find a real solution.

November 29, 2004 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

I don’t know about Guangdong, but in Northeastern China, where I visit frequently, strikes have been pretty common place for over a decade, and these are strikes against state-owned enterprises. These strikes are pretty much always ended by negotiation and not troops with machine guns as some commenters are implying. By any measure, Guangdong is far more open and progressive than NE China, and I’d guess that a strike there would be no big deal, certainly entailing no more risk to the strikers than the loss of their jobs.

November 29, 2004 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

Geeez all this time, I was worrying about the migrants being exploited, when the employers were the ones in danger of being taken advantage of!

Sorry, I just don’t believe that hundreds of multinationals outsource to China because they are attracted by the “less than 5% profit margin” possibility. Same for Chinese factories.
I don’t believe the economic boom in this country is based on this ridiculous figure.
In other words, “less than 5%”? That’s BS, man.

November 30, 2004 @ 4:13 am | Comment

My solution is that labourers/migrants should get better wages (I thought I had gotten my point accross by now), or else social unrest will inevitably spread throughout the country. You know that, I know that, and the CCP knows that.

November 30, 2004 @ 4:23 am | Comment

Steve: “So far, I think CCP is doing
most right things.”

I think we can leave it at that. We’re not going to convince one another. Let those sucky peasants eat cake!

November 30, 2004 @ 6:11 am | Comment

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