Chinese Workers Demanding Better Wages, Conditions, Real Union Protections

 Two weeks ago, Foxconn Technology, an electronic giant, announced it would increase its workers' salaries by as much as 25%. The move was probably the result of pressure from the increasingly rights-conscious workers and international concerns about the factory's working conditions. Shortly before that, Apple had sent an independent labour group to investigate its suppliers, including Foxconn.

Whatever the case, it is high time to improve the lot of workers, a marginalised group in China.

When I became a worker at a rocket factory back in 1980, aged 16, workers enjoyed cradle-to-grave social welfare and a much higher status. We were hailed as "the masters of the nation".

During the free-market era, the state-owned factories laid off excess workers. Those who kept their jobs complained about low salaries, rising labour intensity and the lack of job security. But they are generally better off than workers in the private sector, which now employs 70% of the workforce. The employees at Foxconn worked up to 16 hours a day, in silence (talking was forbidden), with only a few minutes for toilet breaks. Socialism's "masters of the nation" have been reduced to cheap commodities in this cold-hearted capitalism.

Many of the harshest factories – often foreign owned – are staffed by migrant workers. According to some estimates, they make up more than half of the 300-million-strong factory workforce. Although they fuel China's economic miracle, they do not benefit from it.

Despite their numbers, workers in China do not form a united force, but rather a "plate of loose sand", as the Chinese would say. There isn't an organisation such as a functioning trade union to bargain on their behalf or fight for their interests. There are labour unions in most factories, but they are either part of the official All-China Federation of Trade Union, an extension of the government, as in the case of the state-owned factories, or organised by the employers. As a result, the market is very much the employers' playground: if you are not happy with your 1,000-yuan wage, leave – there are plenty more workers willing to take it up.

But things are changing as the buds of independent unions are pushing through the harsh soil.

Liu Rongli, a 58-year-old Beijinger, heads the smallest labour union in the world – consisting of himself and one other worker. Liu serves as a warehouse custodian for a private company with 20 employees. It used to be part of a large state-owned factory, but, in 2004, it was privatised without the knowledge of the workers. Liu's salary dropped from 1,100 to 700 yuan a month. Enraged, Liu organised his fellow workers to petition and they successfully became shareholders in the company. Encouraged by the success, Liu applied for and – after a long battle – won recognition for his "real" labour union, under the umbrella of his district's labour union. "Only a labour union elected by us workers can represent our interests," Liu said to me in Beijing. "And we want to participate in the running of the company affairs."

Not everyone is as lucky. Last July, Zhang Ju, a worker from a Malay-owned chemical plant in eastern China's Zhangjiagang, was sacked for trying to organise an independent union.

In 2010, 500 workers from a Japanese company's plant staged a strike in the city of Foshan in southern China, demanding not only a pay rise but also their own union. The strikers invited Chang Kai, an expert in labour relations from Renmin University, to participate in the negotiations, which resulted in a 35% pay raise.

"The new generation of workers is more aware of the power of collective bargaining," says Professor Chang Kai in an interview with me in Beijing. He predicts that the Honda strike signals the end of China's era of cheap manufacturing.

The young workers also have much higher aspirations when they come to the city. They are not content just to feed their stomachs; they want to build a future. And they are more willing to put up a fight.

Our government, which has not done nearly enough to protect its workers' interests, made a positive move by introducing the labour contract law in 2008, which forces employers to take their responsibilities seriously, and punishes them harshly for violating them; for example, they must pay workers double their salary if they refuse to sign a labour contract. The law was hotly debated among experts. One school, led by Professor Chang, emphasised the rights and protection of the employees, while the other school worried it might push some labour-intensive enterprises to bankruptcy, and therefore lead to rising unemployment. Luckily, Chang won.

I can't overstate the significance of this law. I believe it will give workers a much better idea about their rights and may also serve as something that will cement the "plate of loose sand" together.

For the foreseeable future, China will remain competitive, not just because of its cheap labour but also because of its people's strong work ethic. But I hope this will be the beginning of the end of China's low-cost advantage – or the "low human rights advantage" as it is called by some experts. The human cost is too heavy for it to continue. And the awakened workers will not allow it.

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