Chinese strike wave grows, but rulers strike back

Chinese Sweatshop Model challenged, But Rulers Strike Back

June 15
12:01 pm

By Roger Bybee


China has become known as the world’s factory, or more properly, the world’s sweatshop.

China has epitomized corporate globalization at its worst, a nightmarish model of near-slavery for the 21st century, combining cutting-edge technology with razor-edged brutality. Perversely, these features have made China  a stunningly profitable employer paradise.

While China has gained a nasty reputation for its treatment of workers and the environment, that’s precisely what makes it so attractive to foreign corporations.  Fully 60% of "Chinese" exports come from plants operated for foreign corporations. Ford, GE, GM, and countless other firms that abandoned US workers and communities.


But the Chinese sweatshop system is now being profoundly shaken by a nascent worker rebellion, fueled by a tight labor market that gives workers more leverage. However, it remains to be seen how much revolt the Chinese elite is willing to tolerate at this point—or if the workers’ struggles will continue to escalate beyond what Chinese authorities find acceptable.

Up until very recently, Chinese authorities –including state-run unions–have simply suppressed strikes and jailed leaders, while clamping down on the press to make sure that the worker-rights virus does not spread. This was the ideal "business climate" for US and other foreign employers, and they kept up a gusher of investment flowing into China.

Up until very recently, Chinese authorities –including state-run unions–have simply suppressed strikes and jailed leaders, while clamping down on the press to make sure that the worker-rights virus does not spread. This was the ideal "business climate" for US and other foreign employers, and they kept up a gusher of investment flowing into China.

But on May 24, highly-skilled workers at a crucial Honda transmission plant in Foshan  staged a strike that authorities tolerated, and the well-pubhlicize struggle won spectacular gans for the workers. The New York Times reported June 8,

Last week the Japanese automaker Honda said it had agreed to give about 1,900 workers at one of its plants in southern China raises of 24 to 32 percent, in hopes of ending a two-week strike, according to people briefed on the agreement. The new monthly average would be about $300, not counting overtime.

An epidemic of eight suicides among workers at Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, which employs nearly 400,000 workers in China making electronic components for Apple and Dell and iBooks, forced Foxconn to maike substantial raises and improve its harsh conditions and shorten its exhausting work-weeks.Notes UCLA Prof. C. Cindy Fan, author of China on the Move:

Honda and Foxconn have both agreed to raise wages by large margins. Like dominoes, workers in other factories, including those in an electronic factory in Shenzhen and a textile factory in Hubei, have followed suit and gone on strike.

The tighter labor market has made Chinese workers much less willing to accept the gliaring inequalities that are the essence of the Chinese "boom" which has benefitted only a tiny minority.  Despite all the Western media hype, China still ranks a sickly 92nd internationally on key UN measures of social health. As MIT Prof.Yasheng Huang , author Captialism with Choinse Characteristics writes,

…in the last 20 years China rose to be the factory of the world and tens of millions of jobs were created in the export sector. But job creation is one thing; who gains from it is another.

The labor income share of Chinese G.D.P. declined from 57 percent in 1983 to only 37 percent in 2005. (The ratio has stayed at that level since then.) 

Coupled with this highly visible polarization of wealth and income have been unspeakably miserable working and livning conditions for workers.  Workers’ endless toil has produced only subsistence wages averaging about 75 cents an hour.

On the job, workers often face, brutal regimentation where talking is sometimes prohibited and bathroom breaks are intensely monitored. Many workers live crammed in dormitories near the factories to facilitate a work schedule that may run 14 hours a day for six or seven days a week.


Outrage over these conditions spawned thousands of spontaneous protests which were easily put down or bought off, but Chinese authorities could see the writing on the wall. But the recent struggles show a new level of democratic organization and strategic sophistication.

Chinese leaders have recognized the potential threat of rising ferment among workers–which US and other foreign corporations have been unwilling to defuse — and also set their sights on a higher stage of economic development.

Prof. Fan describes these shifts in strategy among China’s rulers

A sweatshop formula for success may be nearing the end of its life span, as China actively seeks to move its economic structure up the technology/skill ladder.

From the governance point of view, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are more ready than previous leaders to express sympathy for the workers and the poor, an attitude that encourages efforts toward new labor laws and more open media reporting of societal problems such as strikes.

But there are very distinct limits to the rulers’ "sympathy" toward worker resistance  in China. In an ominous sign for the future, more recent strikes have been greeted by the kind of harsh government response to which Chinese workers have long become accustomed.

When workers  in Zhongsan went out on strike at a Honda Lock plant, the strikers–who were less ess technically-skilled than the transmission strikers who inpsired them– were confronted with the corporation and government bringing in strikebreakers. The cominbation of being replaced by scabs, along with small raises in pay and their living allowances, succeeded in breaking the strike..

Nonetheless, The New York Times reported, the task of  strike-breaking was a bit tricky for China’s elite:

The Chinese government’s willingness to help a Japanese company replace Chinese workers with strike breakers could stir anger in China if it became widely known. Some hostility toward Japan still simmers in China as a result of atrocities during World War II.

The strike here has particularly touchy historical overtones. Zhongshan is famous across China as the hometown of Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew imperial rule in China in 1911 and had a socialist-influenced vision of China’s future in which workers would play a valued role.

Clearly, Chinese authorities are now realizing that workers must be granted more concessions and perhaps moving away from a pure sweatshop model. But China’s rulers still clearly intend to keep workers as a subordinate class in a society that will continue to enthrone transnational corporations

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