A blog on Chinese economy & society

Labor movement in China

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The spat of suicides at a leading OEM supplier (for Apple, HP etc.) Foxconn has attracted most of the media attention, but it’s the other labor related unrest that will have greater impact over the long term. Or perhaps these are two sides of the same coin.

Media reports tend to focus on Foxconn’s alleged harsh working conditions. The truth is that Foxconn is far from a sweatshop, evident by its having no problem attracting workers in this age of labor shortage. It’s suicide rate, horrific as it seems, is no worse than the national average. But does this mean all’s swell at Foxconn?

The first suicide in this recent string was committed by a worker that lost Apple’s super duper secretive iPhone prototype, and apparently faced a lot of pressure from the management. Scribblings from the other victims seem to point to many vague uncertainties in life, things that do not seem dire enough to push people to the brink. Things that might just blow over had they had someone to talk to.

Foxconn employed about 400,000 people in the vicinity of Shenzhen, large enough to be its own town in a sense. But among all these masses of uprooted migrant workers, there’s no official organization of association. In fact, any form of liaison among workers is actively discouraged, for fear of fostering labor movement. Without a proper support network, vague disappointments in life often turn deadly.

But management’s fear is not unfounded. Just ask Honda China, which has been hit with a strike that paralyzed its four auto plants in China. After 2 weeks of standoff, Honda is now offering 24% raise in a bid to end the strike.

China’s official “union” basically works for the government and businesses in suppressing labor movement. No I’m not kidding. The union actually got into a scuffle with the striking workers over the weekend. The strike is led by second generation migrant workers in their twenties. Compared to their forefathers, they are better educated, more assertive in advocating their rights, and more media savvy. Coupled with a tight labor market, and the fact that Honda China sells mostly domestically (hence cannot move the production offshore under Chinese law), the workers have much higher bargaining power.

What’s more important is the demonstrative effect this strike has in a country that’s already been plagued with labor unrest. 5000 workers have been blocking a textile factory in Henan Province for about half a month. Labor demonstration also broke out in Beijing over the weekend. Honda workers have taped their deeds and post on the internet in an attempt to generate public awareness and support. Their success will embolden a true labor movement in China in the future.


Written by Cindy Luk

June 1, 2010 at 5:17 pm

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