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Labor unrest in China reflects changing demographics, more awareness of rights

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Although the Honda and Foxconn plants are in southern China, Balani said that most of the five plants he subcontracts are in the north and that "they're still facing the same problem," indicating widespread unrest .

In mid-2008, China introduced a labor law that allows workers with grievances to file complaints and opens a new mechanism for mediation. Publication of the law probably made workers more aware of their rights, experts said.

Since the law went into effect, the number of known complaints has doubled to about 700,000, and they "are going up even faster now," said Mary Gallagher, a Chinese labor expert at the University of Michigan. Businessmen and academics predict that the wave of unrest would probably increase, mainly because of China's shifting population trends.

"This is the thin end of a very long wedge," said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of GaveKal-Dragonomics, a research firm. He said the number of 15- to 24-year-olds in China is set to fall by one-third over the next dozen years, from 225 million today to 150 million in 2022.

Kroeber noted that as the number of young workers declines, the number of factories needing laborers has increased rapidly. "This is the beginning of a long process in which bargaining power is going to shift from the company to the workers," he said.

The labor unrest poses an acute challenge to China's ruling Communist Party and a dilemma for the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. That group, China's only officially sanctioned union, is supposed to represent workers but in practice has worked more as a partner with the government to enforce labor discipline and keep production high.

Zhang Jianguo, a top official with the federation, said the reason for the current unrest is the huge income disparity in China. He said the portion of the country's gross domestic product that has gone to wages has declined by almost 20 percent in the past two decades.

But some say China's official union is itself part of the problem. "The labor union should promote fairness in society instead of promoting economic development," said Lin Yanling, a professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations. "But in China, the labor union doesn't do that."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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