A string of suicides at the Foxconn Technology Group has graphically illustrated the class struggle in China, where a new generation of workers are becoming increasingly militant and organised.

Striking workers at a Honda auto parts plant in Zhongshan held a protest march on Friday 4th of June demanding the right to set up their own labour union- an action expressly prohibited by the Chinese state.

The strike began two days before when a worker was refused entry to the factory for wearing her identity card incorrectly attached to her shirt. After she complained about his actions the guard threw her to the ground.

It may have been a spontaneous event that triggered the strike but it fits into a pattern of growing unrest and a general raising of workers’ consciousness over the past couple of years as China emerges from an economic slump on the back of another potential housing bubble.

In 2008 the English language blog ‘China Labor News Translations’ released a statement saying “We believe that the labor movement in Guangdong province has entered a new stage and is worth our close attention.”

Approximately 1,700 striking Honda workers are demanding a nearly twofold increase in their wages in what was the third Honda factory stoppage in two weeks.

Outrage and protests over a recent spate of suicides at electronics goods manufacturer Foxconn (which assembles products for corporate giants including Apple, Nokia and Sony) in the past year have led to pay increases of nearly 70%. These figures may seem impressive in themselves but they come after two decades of real wage stagnation as demand for workers in the industrial centres was easily met by an abundance of cheap labour brought in from China’s rural areas. The planned increases don’t even meet the minimum wage in the Shenzhen province which is due to be rolled out later in the year.

Confidence of the workers

The striking Honda workers were met by police in riot gear but showed no signs of intimidation. By midmorning the police had dispersed, leaving the workers to block the road leading to the industrial estate where they work. An hour later they too dispersed but remained on strike.The workers (most in their early twenties, over half of them women) have low levels of education, though some hold high school degrees. They are demanding their pay to be brought into line with the workers at the first Honda factory to strike in Fashan.

Workers at the Fashan factory are nearly all young men aged 18-24 with high school degrees and a couple of years of vocational experience. Recently there have been strikes at Japanese and Taiwanese-owned factories in five other cities. But these strikes are reported to have ended quickly as managers, facing extreme labour shortages, have moved to meet workers’ demands. It is believed that the labour shortage was partly caused by the infamous one-child law introduced in 1978. Councils of workers have sprung up formed of representatives from each department, elected due to their persuasive skills, to hold negotiations with management.

Extreme conditions

Workers report having to stand up at their posts for 8 hours a day. Pregnant women are only allowed to sit at their work stations when in their third trimester. As well as not being allowed to speak to each other whilst at work (a widespread policy across China), workers have to request passes before taking toilet breaks and are criticised by managers for taking too long to get a drink of water.

Although individual strikes are tolerated by the state, any form of wider organisation between workplaces is forbidden. Although there appears to have been no organised connection between the wave of strikes, they appear to have inspired a chain reaction of spontaneous actions. This has added to workers’ increased confidence and willingness to fight. The rise of China’s working class may be causing worry for companies who rely on the ‘workshop of the world’ to maximise profits and maintain a competitive edge in a global market over-saturated with competing firms.

A grass roots movement

An online publication by the South Wind Window magazine describes an emerging grass roots labour movement in Southern China “committed to the mission of ‘self-help struggle”. According to the report, in areas of high density labour “migrant workers have been unfairly treated for a long time. Strikes, retaliation against bosses, suicides and other extreme actions are causing serious social instability.”

It sees the task of labour NGOs as reducing the ‘instability’ caused by strikes and walkouts saying “the activities of these organisations have mitigated labour conflicts and promote justice for workers, and have effectively contributed to social stability.” But it’s possible that the militancy of workers may soon overtake the conservative attitude of labour NGOs, however ‘grass roots’ they may be.

This could explain why exploited workers are demanding directly representative, democratic unions of their own to break away from the conciliatory function of ‘self-help’ NGOs. Mr Liu of Livelihood Watch said “I think more strikes are on the way.” He doesn’t share the view that labour NGOs should refuse to rock the boat, saying “they won’t destabilise society. On the contrary, they are outlets for worker anger. Social stability will be threatened only if the government tries to limit these actions.”

Open clashes between angry workers and strike-breakers sent from ACFTU, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (which is heavily state-controlled and doesn’t allow workers the right to collective bargaining) support the idea that the level of class struggle is far in advance of the union bureaucracies.

A divided response

According to China Labor Translations (CLT) some sections of local government bureaucracies “are in disagreement about what to do” now that industrial struggle is stepping up a notch and “pro-business sectors of the bureaucracies have begun curtailing the legal activities of the NGOs”. However this is not yet a consensus amongst local government bureaucrats. According to CLT, the Guangdong Provincial General Federation of Trade Unions “disapproves of these suppressive measures for fear this will only exacerbate antagonistic labor relations” and is seeking to “incorporate the labor NGOs under its wing”.

A reputation to contend with

As the labour NGOs of the Guangdong province have built a reputation for successful disputes, the official trade union has been forced to enter into discussions with them. Needless to say “this relationship is very fragile” but workers may not be best served by such relationships.

If a powerful and effective labour movement is to be built which can seriously challenge the status quo, workers must not be afraid to fight for economic equality. This means challenging the profit model which free market corporatists have been dining out on for so long. A “don’t rock the boat” mentality benefits capitalists far more than it does workers, on who management depends to produce the real wealth of society.

Under the spotlight

The Honda strikes certainly represent a qualitative and quantitative shift in the level of struggle but it was the shocking wave of suicides at Foxconn that sparked widespread anger across the movement and brought the levels of exploitation sharply into people’s minds. Protests were held in China and across the world on the 8th June- the day that Apple launched the high-profile iPhone4- in response to management’s failure to improve working conditions or raise wages.

CLB founder Han Dongfang (a Hong Kong based worker-activist imprisoned for organising workers during the Tiananmen square protests) says concessions made by ACFTU towards labour NGOs are not enough to satiate labour unrest. Foxconn factories may be of an extremely high-standard (including local cinemas and swimming pools) but hours are long, work is repetitive and the management system has been described as ‘militaristic’.

Han says that the only way to resolve workers’ disputes is to “have a real trade union go through the collective bargaining procedures and say, ‘Sorry, the piece rate is that low and you ask us to make that many pieces per hour?'”Collective bargaining is being used at the three Honda factories where workers struck. With no more than 2,000 workers per plant (a relatively low number in China) it has been relatively easy for workers to organise outside of ACFTU.

Confidence in the face of adversity

The transmission factory strike was resolved on the 4th June but two days later workers at another factory in Foshan struck, forcing Honda to halt production. A few hours before the second Honda dispute seemed to be reaching a temporary settlement, fellow workers at a third factory (producing door locks) struck as well.

Industrial action in China is no walk in the park. Both the police and the official state union are prepared to face down the workers with force. China’s militant workers, fully aware of the resistance they face, are prepared for such clashes and aren’t ready to back down. Ms Li, a spokeswoman for independent worker representatives said “everybody should protect their own rights, and sooner or later we will start to build our own independent union.”

Strikes held on 8th June coincided with workers at Shanghai’s KOK International clashing with police. A petition circulated by the KOK workers read “power lies in unity and hope lies in defiance”. This is a lesson the NGOs may be unwilling to learn.

Young, angry and informed

The new generation of workers are predominantly aged between 18-24 and are unwilling to accept the conditions their parents’ generation faced as China entered into a rapid programme of capitalist expansion. Mainly high-school educated, workers get information about strikes elsewhere through reports in official media, blogs and internet chat forums.

According to Professor Chang Kai of Renmin University “Workers now realise that they can’t protect their rights as individuals so their awareness of the need for collective action has increased.” He is dubious, in light of union behaviour during the Honda dispute, about “what position unions should take in the conflict between workers and capitalists.”

The tipping point

Strikes appear to have increased significantly since a major demonstration held by workers in 2008 at Yantian port, Shenzhen. The factory is owned by Li Ka-Shing, Asia’s richest man. According to Liu Kaiming, director of Shenzhen based labour rights group the Institute of Contemporary Observation, the demonstration marked the ‘tipping point’ because workers “demanded their own representatives.” Liu Kaiming believes that “workers in China are becoming more and more powerful.

They are not just asking for higher wages; they are asking for an elected union. Their appeal is not just about individual issues – they are asking for collective rights and benefits.” This new generation of militant workers are aware of their rights and are willing to fight for them.

Impact on the economy

Some have speculated that corporations will no longer be able to achieve maximum exploitation of those who toil in ‘the workshop of the world’ any longer and that this will drive inflation across the world and drive down the value of the yuan. Others believe that the value added to products assembled by Chinese workers is minimal and that added cost wont impact greatly on consumers.

Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin, said that workers have been driven harder as China begins to pull out of its recent economic slowdown, yet they have seen no appropriate wage increase. He believes this is the driving force between workers’ antipathy towards management. He also thinks that workers have been inspired by the successes of previous industrial action, saying “they see strikes have been successful elsewhere and decide to try their luck,”

A challenge to state power

China’s ruling class fear their grip on power is being challenged by China’s rising labour movement. Those who dissent in public or set up unofficial labour organisations face abuse and prosecution. Labour unrest has lead to most local government in China announcing a rise in the minimum wage to 1,000 (USD147) and has lead to several companies considering shifting their industries to India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

But China’s advanced supply chain network and industrial infrastructure makes capital flight unlikely. This puts the Chinese working class in a strong position to throw their weight around after 30 years of exploitation under an expanding economy. A strong labour movement in China would be in a position to back the exploiting class into a corner and attack corporate profit margins.

But it is the response of the working class of the rest of the world working in solidarity with the struggle in China that can shift the balance of power in favour of the exploited. The process has begun in Greece in response to punitive “austerity measures” implemented by a disorientated but vicious ruling class, determined to make workers pay for a crisis they did not create. China also points the way and could be decisive in the battles ahead.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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