washingtonpost.com  > World > Asia/Pacific > East Asia > China

In China, Workers Turn Tough

Spate of Walkouts May Signal New Era

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page A01

DONGGUAN, China -- Heralded by an unprecedented series of walkouts, the first stirrings of unrest have emerged among the millions of youthful migrant workers who supply seemingly inexhaustible cheap labor for the vast expanse of factories in China's booming Pearl River Delta.

The signs of newly assertive Chinese workers have jolted foreign and Chinese factory owners, who for the last two decades have churned out everything from Nikes to baby dolls with unbeatably low production costs. Some have concluded that the raw era in which rootless Chinese villagers would accept whatever job they could get may be drawing to a close, raising questions about China's long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing.

Workers in Dongguan in China's booming Pearl River Delta have become less willing to passively accept low pay. (Ricky Wong -- Krt)

"One dollar, two dollars, it used to be they didn't care," said Tom Stackpole, originally from Massachusetts, who is quality control director here for Skechers USA Inc. and has been involved in shoe manufacturing in southern China for a decade. "That has passed."

Stella International Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer employing 42,000 people in and around Dongguan, faced strikes this spring that turned violent. At one point, more than 500 rampaging workers sacked company facilities and severely injured a Stella executive, leading hundreds of police to enter the factory and round up ringleaders.

"We never had anything like that before," said Jack Chiang, Stella's chief executive.

Chiang suggested that several factors have contributed to the shift in attitude. On the one hand, he acknowledged, assembly-line wages have not risen in recent years nearly as fast as the cost of living. On the other, image-conscious U.S. retailers who buy Dongguan's shoes have demanded better treatment and human rights counseling for the workers, encouraging them to step up and make demands for change.

Finally, Chiang added, broader general freedoms in the country have reduced the Chinese people's traditional fear of authority, and not just among factory workers. Protests by farmers and others, many of them violent, have broken out with increasing frequency across the country in recent months.

The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations.

"The government is the largest boss in the area," said Liu Kaiming, a labor analyst and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in nearby Shenzhen.

Apparently eager to show solidarity with restless workers, the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only legal union in the country, recently issued a reminder that the law requires foreign as well as Chinese companies to accept federation branches wherever workers demand it. The official federation announced Thursday that Wal-Mart, the American merchandizing giant, had agreed to allow unions in its factories in China.

But factory owners and workers in the Pearl River boom zone said the official union does little to represent labor, even in the rare cases when branches are formed, because it is a spinoff of local governments that own or rely on the businesses. In one factory, Liu recounted, the union head was both a management executive and a senior official in the local government.

Even when they do not directly own companies, local governments have a high stake in preserving the Pearl River Delta's role as a magnet for U.S., Japanese and other firms seeking cheap labor unencumbered by unions. Foreign companies have invested more than $50 billion in the region over the last five years, contributing to a 14 percent growth rate in the local economy, compared with 9 percent countrywide.

The result has been a near-total lack of representation for millions of workers, most of them 18- to 22-year-old women, who toil on assembly lines more than 60 hours a week for wages that amount to about $120 a month. According to standard practice, most live at their factories in company-provided dormitories and eat in company cafeterias -- and then hand back a third of their pay for food and lodging.

Some villagers, unhappy with such meager leftover savings, have gone home, and factory managers have begun to encounter labor shortages for the first time. Although recruits are still abundant for most areas, they said, the most sought-after workers -- young women with high school educations -- have become scarce in recent months, particularly in Dongguan's low-paying shoe industry.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company