Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, June 11, 2010

Workers strike in China

Kevin James, who teaches at Albany HS (CA) read his copy of the latest issue of The Economist before I did and alerted me to the first of these articles in his AHS Comparative Government blog. Thanks.

I knew what to look for. It relates to a recent entry here about protest in an authoritarian system. The Washington Post article was published a day later, and in the days after that NPR and the New York Times covered the story. David Barboza and Hiroko Tabuchi, in another article, imply that strikes and the publicity now surrounding them might be part of a policy by the Chinese government to pressure foreign investors to raise wages and improve working conditions.

Unions in China: Strike breakers
AS CHINESE strikes go, the one that crippled Honda’s car production in late May was relatively discreet: no picketing, no clashes with police, little sign of copycat action. But it was significant. The stoppage was one of the biggest and longest-running in an enterprise with foreign investors. And it has exposed worrying problems for the government and factory owners in China’s industrial heartland…

Workers have been emboldened by a law introduced in January 2008 aimed at strengthening their contractual rights. The global economic downturn kept wages down and increased workers’ grievances…

Several workers complained that despite paying membership dues of around 10 yuan ($1.50) a month, they had received virtually nothing from the union, least of all help negotiating with managers. But their ability to keep up their strike for nearly two weeks seems to have rattled the government. Normally worker protests dissipate rapidly, with unions usually taking the side of managers…

Wen Yunchao, a prominent blogger in Guangdong, says [that]… at most factories, managers and their government backers will retain the upper hand. The Honda workers are unusual, he says, because many of them are “interns” sent by technical colleges. Their bonding as fellow students means they can organise themselves more easily than can workers who are usually migrants from different rural areas...


Labor unrest in China reflects changing demographics, more awareness of rights
China has been hit with a recent wave of labor unrest, including strikes and partial shutdowns of factories, underscoring what experts call one of the most dramatic effects of three decades of startling growth: A seemingly endless supply of cheap labor is drying up, and workers are no longer willing to endure sweatshop-like conditions.

China's export-driven growth has long been linked to its abundance of workers -- mostly migrants from the impoverished countryside who jumped at the chance to escape a hardscrabble rural life to toil long hours in factories for meager wages.

If they were unhappy, they rarely expressed it through action, and if they did, they were quickly fired and replaced from among the hundreds of others waiting outside the factory gates.

Now all of that has started to change…

The recent cases -- particularly the Honda strike -- are also noteworthy for receiving extensive coverage in the Chinese media. While labor unrest has become increasingly common across China in the past two years, experts said, most incidents typically go unreported…

In mid-2008, China introduced a labor law that allows workers with grievances to file complaints and opens a new mechanism for mediation. Publication of the law probably made workers more aware of their rights, experts said.

Since the law went into effect, the number of known complaints has doubled to about 700,000, and they "are going up even faster now," said Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan, an expert on Chinese labor…

The labor unrest poses an acute challenge to China's ruling Communist Party and a dilemma for the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. That group, China's only officially sanctioned union, is supposed to represent workers but in practice has worked more as a partner with the government to enforce labor discipline and keep production high.

Zhang Jianguo, a top official with the federation, said the reason for the current unrest is the huge income disparity in China. He said the portion of the country's gross domestic product that has gone to wages has declined by almost 20 percent in the past two decades.

But some say China's official union is itself part of the problem. "The labor union should promote fairness in society instead of promoting economic development," said Lin Yanling, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations. "But in China, the labor union doesn't do that."


See also: Power Grows for Striking Chinese Workers
After years of focusing on luring foreign investment, Chinese government officials are now endorsing efforts to improve conditions for workers and raise salaries. The government hopes the changes will ease a widening income gap between the rich and the poor and prevent social unrest over soaring food and housing prices…

Economists say that China’s labor force is growing increasingly bold and that over the last year, periodic strikes in southern China — some supposedly involving global companies — have been resolved quietly or not reported in the media...


Workers at Chinese Honda Plant March in Protest
Striking workers at a Honda auto parts plant here are demanding the right to form their own labor union, something officially forbidden in China, and held a protest march Friday morning.

Meanwhile, other scattered strikes have begun to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the labor unrest…

The Chinese government has not allowed unions with full legal independence from the national, state-controlled union. But the government has occasionally finessed the issue by letting workers choose their factories’ representatives of the national union, or by allowing the creation of “employee welfare committees” in parallel with the official local units, said Mary E. Gallagher, a China labor specialist at the University of Michigan...

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