China Seeing Dawn of a Labor Movement?

As conflicting reports come out about the status of the strike at the Honda parts factory in China, many voices in the Western media are asking whether this strike and other recent events mark the beginning of an organized labor movement in China, where the only official union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, is government-run. From the New York Times:

Several Honda Motor employees said Tuesday that the strike at the Japanese automaker’s transmission plant in southern China had yet to be settled, despite Honda’s contention that a majority of the 1,900 workers on strike had accepted its proposed 24 percent pay increase.

The strike, which began more than two weeks ago, has led the company to shut down all four of its Chinese assembly plants in what has become a symbol of the growing clout of Chinese workers.

Honda said Tuesday that a majority of its workers who walked out had agreed to a 24 percent increase in pay and benefits and that some workers had returned to work late Monday.

But Honda workers said Tuesday afternoon that some employees who had temporarily returned to work Monday afternoon had gone back on strike Tuesday. They also reported that scuffles had broken out Monday between workers and some people aiding the government, after some workers were pressed to end the strike and return to work.

And CBS reports on young workers’ growing frustrations with their treatment by factory bosses:

Since foreign companies began flooding into China in the 1980s, low-wage laborers have formed the backbone of the country’s flourishing economy. Few other countries could offer an almost endless supply of relatively well-educated, healthy young laborers who would toil for long shifts without complaint.

The only legal labor unions in China are sanctioned by the Chinese government, which has ample reason to keep work disputes to a minimum.

That could be changing. About 1,900 workers at a Honda manufacturing plant in southern China’s Guangdong province successfully negotiated a pay raise after walking off the job for more than ten days. The company had reportedly been hiring trainees to work for less than the Chinese minimum wage of $920 a month.

…China has long been hailed as the “world’s factory” but, until now, few have asked what goes on behind the factory’s closed doors. In the case of Foxconn, labor activists have complained about conditions there for years, but the world’s media ignored the problem until young workers began to kill themselves at an alarming rate.

And from the Los Angeles Times:

Experts say younger factory workers — having grown up in a time of relative prosperity — will find it increasingly difficult to accept low pay and grueling work hours the way previous generations have.

China’s rapidly aging population also is expected to boost labor’s leverage as the number of working-age Chinese dwindles to about half its current portion of the population by 2030.

Labor shortages already are being reported in many export-driven coastal provinces because of rapid development in China’s interior. Several provinces and major cities such as Shanghai have had little choice but to raise minimum wages.

“Most of the workers born after 1980 have a better awareness of their rights,” said Liu Kaiming, an expert on migrant labor and executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation. “They will choose where to work and ask for better salary.”

See also “China workers’ morale suffers piece by piece” from the Financial TImes blog.