In April of this year, a group of Chinese workers, frustrated and angry at their employer’s long-standing refusal to pay their pension contributions, stormed into their manager’s office and demanded payment. The manager prevaricated and made empty promises. When he realized the workers were not going away, he called the police and had the ringleaders arrested for imprisoning him in his office.
Only a few years ago, that might have been the end of the story. The workers would have been cowed into dropping their claims and their leaders would never have been heard of again. But China is a very different place today and the workers at this jewelry factory on the outskirts of Guangzhou did not give up or give in. On the contrary, they rallied around their detained co-workers and demanded their release. Not only that, they persisted with their pleas for pensions, and in the end it was the company that gave in and acceded to their demands.
In the recent past, local governments in China might have clamped down on protests like the one in the jewelry factory. But nowadays they realize that such protests are not an overt political threat. Many local officials are giving workers and employers the space they need to resolve their differences.
Perhaps more significant, employers are increasingly realizing that they need to listen to and act on workers’ demands if they want a stable and productive work force.
Economic realities account for part of these changes. China’s manufacturers can no longer rely on an unlimited supply of rural migrants to run their production lines. They now have to offer higher wages, better working conditions and improved benefits in order to hire new workers and keep existing staff.
Meanwhile, a cultural shift is also under way. Young workers have greater expectations and higher aspirations than their parents’ generation. Simply getting by is no longer good enough, and they are increasingly demanding a lot more than the subsistence wages that have been the norm for so long.
It is not just better pay and working conditions that young workers are demanding: Fundamentally, they want to be treated with dignity and respect. As a striker at a handbag factory in Guangdong last year told a reporter for The South China Morning Post: “Management treats us as less than human beings. … We can’t contain our anger anymore.”
The use of new media has helped their cause. Just about every worker has a camera phone and many make use of microblogs on which they post real-time updates of their strikes, their list of demands and the response of the boss and the local authorities to those demands. This kind of publicity at one factory can embolden other workers around the country and attract the mainstream media, which is increasingly willing to report on worker protests, often in a sympathetic manner.
Local governments and employers could try to ignore or even fight these trends — but it’s too late. This is a political and economic reality facing China’s next generation of leaders. It is in their interests to foster the workers’ momentum for positive social and economic change.
Because it is not just in the southern province of Guangdong, the “factory to the world” as it is known, that workers are taking action. In the central province of Henan, which has traditionally exported workers to the factories of the south, workers at the Xinfei electronics factory staged a four-day strike in October, which only ended when the company reportedly acceded to all eight of the workers’ demands, including the dismissal of two unpopular managers.
As one Xinfei employee told the official Chinese media: “This is a preliminary victory for us workers. Although it is not a big achievement, it does show the strength of the workers.”
At China Labour Bulletin we count about 35 strikes each month in media reports. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Some estimates put the total number of strikes and worker protests at around 30,000 each year.
The demands of striking workers range from better food in the factory cafeteria to proper compensation for overtime, but essentially everything boils down to decent pay for decent work. Although wages are rising, there is still a long way to go before workers on the production line can even think about earning enough money to buy an apartment — or even enough to get married and raise a family.
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, has just published a survey in which three-quarters of all respondents predicted that the wealth gap would be the biggest problem facing the new government leaders in the coming decade. But in many ways, China’s workers have already shown us the solution to this problem by obtaining better pay and working conditions through a form of collective bargaining with management.
If the new leadership in Beijing can facilitate the creation of a permanent, effective and stable mechanism for raising wages though collective bargaining within China’s factories, this in turn will reduce the wealth gap and help create a healthy economy and enhance social stability.
There is no conflict of interest between the needs of the workers and the needs of the Chinese government, and the business community must wake up to that hard economic reality.
Han Dongfangis the director of China Labour Bulletin.