Chinese workers rising

June 19, 2010
At least a dozen workers at Foxconn, the company that manufactures the iPhone for Apple in China, have committed suicide in the

The next time someone tells you that Marx or Marxism is outdated because capitalism is not as exploitative as it was in the 19th century, just crack open your copy of Capital, turn to the chapter on the working day, and compare its vivid depiction of the brutalisation of the British working class to the state of the working class in China today.

Substitute electronics or auto parts factories for cotton mills, and the cities of Shenzhen, Foshan, or Zhongshan for Manchester, Birmingham, or Glasgow, and the picture doesn’t change very much. Then as now, workers are subjected to working days of 12 hours or more, tyrannical supervision, and pitiful wages.

It’s not very surprising to see that at least a dozen workers at a single electronics factory in China have committed suicide in the past year. The working and living conditions confronting millions of Chinese workers are desperate, and they directly (and mostly negatively) impact the prospects for working people around the world.

But there’s only so much that workers, even those living under a harshly repressive regime, can tolerate before fighting back.

In recent weeks, a wave of strikes for higher wages and better working conditions has rocked a series of Chinese manufacturing centres, challenging the exploitation and resulting social inequalities that have fuelled China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades.

While the Chinese government’s tight control over the press prevents us from knowing for sure, the current unrest seems to have begun with a strike at a Honda transmission plant in the southern city of Foshan in late May. All 1900 workers walked off the job to demand wages matching those of Honda’s assembly plant workers — a 75% wage rise. After about two weeks on strike, the transmission workers won a rise of 24-32%.

This strike, which shut down Honda’s production around the country, inspired more strikes against the company in Foshan and elsewhere.

Days after the first strike was settled, workers at an exhaust system factory in Foshan walked off the job to demand higher wages, and they were joined almost immediately by workers who shut down at least two auto parts factories and two assembly plants.

As the strikes spread, they seem to be taking on a political character as well.

According to the June 11 New York Times, the 1700 workers currently on strike at the auto parts factory in Zhongshan are calling for an independent union in addition to better wages and working conditions. This openly challenges the mostly useless government-controlled trade union federation.

The NYT said strikes against foreign-owned plants in at least five other cities have begun, spreading beyond the southern Guangdong province in which the strike wave began.

Why has the strike wave happened now, and why haven’t they been suppressed yet by the Chinese Communist Party?

According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, demographic changes and government policy likely explain much of the recent wave of worker unrest. China’s one-child policy has allowed families to focus all of their resources on that one child, raising expectations and alleviating poverty. The internet, while still heavily filtered, has allowed Chinese workers to learn about the struggles of others and has aided the circulation of discontent.

A labour shortage has given workers more leverage to make previously unrealistic demands, and certain government policies have increased investment in rural areas and diversified Chinese industry, giving workers more employment options. Pressure to improve wages and living conditions has also partially come from the government itself.

It is probably no coincidence that the Chinese government is tolerating the strike wave at a time in which the global economy is shifting its long dependence on the American consumer as its primary engine.

The Chinese will need to decrease reliance on exports and stimulate more domestic consumer demand to maintain steady growth; allowing workers to bargain for higher wages would help them accomplish this goal (though if there are any signs that the strike wave might go beyond purely economic demands, it can be expected that the Chinese government to crack down harshly).

This is one of those interesting examples where class struggle waged by workers helps to serve the shorter term interests of capital. The struggle to shorten the working day ensured that capitalists would not drive all of their workers into early graves.

While the efforts of Chinese workers to improve wages and conditions will likely help to stabilise the system in the shorter term, if this trend continues it might have some very interesting long-term implications.

As US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, one of the major pressures impinging on the endless accumulation of capital is the rise of the average wage level as a cost of production across the global economy. During the 19th and 20th centuries, if workers got too demanding in Europe and the US, capital could always shift geographically into lower wage areas or to other parts of the world that had yet to be integrated into the global economy.

But as China, India, countries in the former Soviet bloc, and others become integrated into the world economy, and as the low-wage workers that they offer to capital become inured to wage labour in industrial and urban settings, they will likely demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Eventually, places for capital to relocate to will run out. It will be unable to avoid rising labour costs, and this could significantly hamper its ability to endlessly generate higher profits and growth. We’re probably not anywhere near that point yet, but it’s a trend that bears watching.

[Abridged from]

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