Wednesday, September 26, 2012
News of a massive riot at a Foxconn facility in China renewed public concerns about working conditions in the factories that assemble iPhones and other products for U.S. tech darling Apple. But the incident is also a reminder that labor relations are already changing in China. The riot is, writes Behzad Yaghmaian, a sign of an emboldened workforce — and a government that has grown more tolerant of worker militancy.
China’s labor force is transforming. A new generation of confident and forward-looking migrant workers has replaced the older peasants who fueled China’s industries in the 1980s and 1990s. Working in a factory was only a temporary activity for the docile and impoverished peasants who dreamed of saving money for a better life in the village.
The Chinese government has been slowly abandoning its zero-tolerance approach towards striking workers.
Today, the young men and women who fill China’s factories are the children of that first generation of migrant workers. Emboldened by the country’s successes, they dream of benefiting from all the promises of the new China — having a home and a full and normal life in the city.
The riot last Sunday by 2,000 workers at the Foxconn facility in Taiyuan, a city less than 400 miles from Beijing, is a reflection of the boldness — and the desires — of this generation.
The riot is a continuation of a rising trend of labor militancy in China. Strikes and demands for independent unions and substantial wage increases swept through plants that manufacture parts for Toyota and Honda in late spring and early summer in 2010.
The Honda strike ended when the company agreed to provide workers a 24% wage increase. Police remained on the sidelines during that strike.
There have been numerous other, lower-profile job actions in recent years. Labor dispute cases tripled from 407,000 in 2005 to 1.287 million in 2010.
In most instances, the government demonstrated unprecedented restraint. The Chinese government has been slowly abandoning its zero-tolerance approach towards strikes and job actions.
This change in policy is a reflection of a new path to growth and economic development in China. The rising militancy of Chinese workers and sporadic job actions have put Beijing on alert.
Eager to avoid social instability, while hoping to transform the international image of China as the sweatshop of the world, the government has been supporting legislation to improve labor conditions. A law passed in 2007, for example, requires all employers to provide their laborers with a signed contract, regardless of the size of their workforce.
Not long ago, a protest of the intensity of the Foxconn riot would have resulted in mass arrests — and the disappearance of its leaders.
China began its economic ascendance by supporting low-wage, export-processing industries. What made China an economic powerhouse, however, became a stigma that the government has been trying hard to dispel.
Hoping to change the country’s role as the producer of cheap and low-end products, the government has been pouring resources into high-tech research and development and production, providing generous subsidies to new high value-added industries, and using China’s new economic power as a foundation for building a middle class society.
Across China’s coastal areas, local governments have increased the minimum wage. In Shenzhen, China’s main industrial hub, the government-set minimum wage more than tripled from an average of $70 a month in 2005 to $240 in 2012. The minimum wage in Guangdong Province increased by 20% in January 2012.
Despite these changes, Chinese worker continue to suffer from egregious abuses. Unbearable deadlines, unpaid overtime, mistreatment and beatings of the workers by the guards, and overcrowded dormitories are commonplace. Chinese workers are, however, beginning to demand improved workplace relations, and respect from their employers.
The Foxconn riot is the latest manifestation of this this growing trend, but unlikely to be the last. Two thousand workers forcefully reacted to a common problem. Only 20 were arrested, despite the intervention of 5,000 police officers.
Not long ago, a protest of this magnitude and intensity would have resulted in mass arrests — and the disappearance of protest leaders. The tide is changing.