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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La Rivière des perles et la lutte des classes

by Dominique Bari

Pearl River, and Class Struggle

Translated Wednesday 13 April 2011, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Bill Scoble

In May 2010, a wave of strikes is set to begin in south China. 400 companies would be affected, across the country. Return to Guangdong, where a new generation of immigrants is changing the game, and raises the question of effective labor union representation.

Guangdong, China, by special envoy.

It is 17h30. Foxconn’s workers are leaving the plant. The north gate of the factory, a gigantic gray bunker, opens, letting out waves of dark blue jackets for men, gray and pink for women. It’s a "mega" version of Workers leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon [1] taking place in the neighborhood of Longhua, a half-hour from downtown Shenzhen, the industrial metropolis in southern China. Within minutes, streets and sidewalks are stormed by thousands of workers who, with the rhythm of a rising tide, return to their dormitories.

The outsourcing empire for electronics headed by Taiwan’s Terry Gou employs 800,000 people in a dozen sites in China. The 300,000 workers in Shenzhen Foxconn work the production line for the Apple iPhone, Nokia mobile phones, game consoles from Sony and PCs from Dell and Hewlett-Packard. It’s difficult to stop some of the workers. Many ignore us, refusing to speak. Others offer us, without slowing their pace, a few snippets of their lives. The young Yao confirms that his salary was raised to 2,400 yuan (268 euros) in early November, according to the promises of the billionaire boss, "but that’s with overtime, the basic salary being 1200 yuan. She said no more. Nothing about the 12-hour working day, six days a week, and especially nothing on the suicides of 14 employees last year.

Near a newsstand, we encounter Tian. He is amused by our vain attempts to make contact with his young colleagues: "They won’t speak. Starting right away during their trial period, they are told that there is a ban on talking about the company, not only with outsiders, but also amongst themselves. They feel they are being watched."

Tian is a technician and has worked for four years at Foxconn on the development of new models of portable phones. He is itching to talk about the company. In the street, near the factory, is not the right place. He invites us to his lodging, three bus stops away. In his tiny three-room apartment, we meet his wife Chen, his daughter and his mother. Like her husband, Chen is a Foxconn worker, in logistics. When we ask Tian why there is such a aura of despair around the plant, the answer is immediate: the terrible pressure, and the overwork. "Even the engineers are not immune. One of them, Li Yan, died of exhaustion, May 26, 2010, after working twenty-four hours straight. It is frowned upon to refuse to work overtime. One is immediately sidelined. We also suffer from severe isolation vis-à-vis other workers, both in the workshops and in the dormitories. "The pressure is constant, and the tale-telling and mistrust among colleagues, maintained by management, break any form of solidarity.

"We do not talk to each other, we don’t get together. In four years, I once called a colleague on his mobile," says Tian. He reflects on the poisonous atmosphere of Foxconn, confirming the report by researchers from 20 universities from China, Taiwan and Hongkong, denouncing "inhuman" working conditions in the company, with reports of insults and beatings by foremen, and insane timetables (up to 100 hours per week, from 80.).

In May and June of last year, when it was no longer possible to conceal the suicides, the factory management announced a series of measures (end of bullying, opening clinics, payment of overtime), with an increase in wages of 67% starting 1 October. "Just wind," Tian contends. Some salaries have been increased but not by more than 30%, and not all salaries. Nothing has changed; the evidence: there was another suicide in November. A worker leaped from a roof of his dormitory, and in January there was a strike in a workshop. But the case was hushed up.

And when there were wage increases, it was not without a trade-off. After three months of testing, Taiwanese engineers succeeded in increasing productivity on certain production lines by 40%. "And the union sees no problem," says Chen. "There were a lot of strikes, but ultimately, at least until now, there are few gains", says, hesitantly, Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong Association for the Defence of Workers, the China Labour Bulletin. "There are shortages of labor in Guangdong province, making it easier, for the moment, to get higher wages. But these increases, although substantial, were quickly absorbed by increases in housing prices, and of food, as charged by employers," say the employees concerned.

"Yet there is no doubt there are beginnings of a change in the Chinese production model based on low wages. This fits within the logic of development of domestic consumption, which the government advocates," said Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation (IOC) based in Shenzhen. This institute trains migrant workers, installs hotlines and publishes studies on working conditions. "Over the past year, we see a proliferation of disputes. Several factors are to blame, such as the discontent of employees when they see the Labour Act of 1 January 2008 remain a dead letter" [2], Geoffrey Crothall reasons. These movements are evidence of a new militancy. The workers have gained bargaining power and they realize it. The aspiration to social justice is increasingly strong and speech is becoming more free. "

Also in Foshan, the parts plant of the Japanese automaker Honda, was the starting point of the wave of resistance in the spring of 2010. It all started on May 17 with the walkout of a hundred workers protesting against a management decision deemed unfair. The strike ended on June 4, after an agreement with the sixteen representatives of employees appointed outside the official unions, for an increase of 24% in base salary. But the most important thing is that on this occasion the workers wrote an open letter to their employers, including a list of demands as to salary scale, representation of employees, job evaluation methods and criteria for promotion. The document further stated that their struggle was not only for employees of the factory, but for all the Chinese workers. Since then, the standoff continues unabated. Strikes for two weeks broke out in mid-March 2011, reported the official Xinhua China View on its website.

For Liu Kaiming, workers began to understand that their economic poverty is linked to their political weakness. "The consequences of these social movements are partly unpredictable, but they may be multiple. I think there will be more and more strikes."

Thirty years after the industrial take-off, the second generation of workers of rural origin, the Mingongs, are changing the rules of the social game. They have experience as the first generation born in the 1990s, knowing nothing but growth, and having a different mentality "They are between 16 and 25, more easily keep themselves informed about what happens in other plants, change from one factory to another more easily, and do not fear unemployment. Therefore, they are not afraid to strike", says Liu Kaiming. At 18, Zhang is working on an assembly line in a factory for electronics assembly in Yin Tai district, north of Shenzhen. His favorite hobby is to buy new clothes and to go with friends to a dance club or karaoke bar. He hates being called a migrant worker. He leverages the internet to study labor law and notes violations of law by his boss.

At 35, Ms. Sun, whom we have come across in the streets of Dongguan, a factory city between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, seems to come from another world. Coming from a village in Guizhou in 1995, she now works in a small Chinese manufacturer of bags. That’s the kind of factory that employs older workers, those over thirty and having no training. "Of course there have been changes in sixteen years. Dongguan has radically changed, Nancheng’s Shopping Street, a main street, was just a smelly drainage ditch. We earned 400 yuan per month and our life was more precarious. Without a residence permit and employment, we often risked detention. We did not have access to health care. In recent years, conditions have improved for us Mingongs; we no longer risk expulsion from urban areas. Wages have risen, but so has the intensity at work. The days are 12 hours long, and usually with only one day off per month. As for unions, we call them ghosts. One creates a cell for purposes of an investigation, and it disappears as quickly as it came. "

Yet the 2001 Act requires the establishment of unions in any business, Chinese and foreign, with over 25 employees. This is far from the practice at present. But the social revolts have reignited the debate about the role and nature of trade unionism in China. "To fight for a dignified life, workers in China must use every means to protect their own rights and legal interests," protested Yu Jianrong, an associate researcher at the China Media Project at Hong Kong. "In a state of alert, the government of Guangdong has proposed new legislation adopting the principle of collective bargaining, says Geoffrey Crothall. But it faces lobbying by bosses in Hong Kong. The text has been stalled since last September. However, it raises the delicate problem of the representation of workers. As an experiment, in one hundred companies in Guangdong, union representatives will be directly elected by the workers. This is a first, to be followed with great interest.


Interview with Zhou Litai : The Bosses Deny Workers’ Rights

Defense attorney for employees, Zhou Litai points to the kinks in existing legislation

Former migrant worker, Zhou Litai knows the players he defends in this world. Laborer in a brickyard in Hunan in the eighties, he began to study law. In 1986, he successfully passed the first competition to become a lawyer in post-Maoist China, and in 1996 opened his specialized law firm.

Huma: What changes have you observed since 1996?

Zhou Litai: We now have a complete legal arsenal. The labor laws, business law, legislation on insurance, are good. This is the positive side, much progress has been made to protect social rights. What is blocked is simply the application of these laws.

Companies do not respect the labor laws. They are reluctant to sign employment contracts under the provisions of the 2008 Act. They do not respect the limits on working hours to 40 hours weekly. They do not increase wages, do not pay mandatory social security contributions, do not want to recognize occupational diseases and refuse compensation to those victims. All these examples show that the situation is very serious for the workers. For laws to be enforced, pressure must be put on employers. Pressures that must come from both the authorities and the employees.

Huma: And these pressures are insufficient ...

Zhou Litai: The government has for years given priority to economic development at the expense of employee rights. Things are moving but we have to move quickly to change both the system and attitudes.

Huma: What characterizes this second generation of migrant workers?

Zhou Litai: Workers know their rights better than their elders twenty years ago, but still not well enough. This leaves them very vulnerable. Paradoxically, the number of complaints has decreased. Ten years ago or more, the legislation was flawed, but nevertheless it was easier to bring the case of a worker to a court trial and win. Today, the complaints are actually becoming less and procedures are lengthy. Employees lose confidence. From 1996 to 2006, I handled over 6,000 cases involving the defense of Mingongs. This is significantly less today. The tribunals that judge the complaints are not independent. They are not capable of rendering a fair trial because the administration, pushed by the bosses, interferes. If the authorities do not respect the laws they enact, how do you think people are going to have confidence in the legislation?

A central issue is that of union representation worthy of the name. The official trade unions, the only unions authorized, are dependent and incompetent because of political power. We must have a reconfiguration of unions so that union delegates can exercise fully and independently their role in defending the interests of employees.

Interviewed by Dominique Bari

China: A Bothersome Law [4]

The labor law of 2008 requires employers to sign contracts with all their employees. It sets forth a minimum salary, varying according to different professional categories, and sets employers contributions (30% of salary) to social security and retirement, as well as indemnities for transport and lodging. It obliges the employer to furnish a contract of unlimited duration to all persons having been employed for ten years. This law is most frequently disobeyed, and employers push their workers to quit after eight of nine years. The law also reaffirms the unions’ role in negotiation of collective contracts, as well as in the protection of the interests of the wage earners.

[1A 46-second film, considered to be the first motion picture made.

[2See the interview with Zhou Litai that concludes this article

[4Original French text: Chine. Une loi qui dérange.

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