Behzad Yaghmaian has written a fascinating article in the Globalist this week about the changing relationship between the Chinese state and the increasingly militant tendencies of its labour force.
The starting point for the piece follows on from news that a massive riot broke out at a Foxconn facility last Sunday, one of the factories wherein iPhones and other Apple products are made. The dispute, involving 2,000 workers in Taiyuan – 400 miles from Beijing – was a result of escalating concerns over working conditions.
It is not the first indication of the problematic genesis of Apple’s products to reach Western ears, however it does act as another reminder that labour relations are slowly but surely being transformed in China. As Yaghmaian notes, we are witnessing ‘a government that has grown more tolerant of worker militancy’ in recent years.
Yaghmaian is worth quoting at length for the context:
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.
Considering why the Chinese government might have taken a position of such relative acquiescence, the author suggests it reflects a new path to growth and economic development in China; a break with the country’s hitherto economic dependence on low-wage, low-end product exports. He writes:
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 … [T]he 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.
As with many periods of intense, and fundamental change, Chinese workers are continuing to suffer from unbearable deadlines, unpaid overtime, mistreatment and physical assault, to paint just a few brush-strokes of the larger picture. As Yaghmaian concludes:
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.
To read the full article, as well as other great content at the Globalist, click here.