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

By Keith B. Richburg
Monday, June 7, 2010; A10

BEIJING -- China has been hit with a recent wave of labor unrest, including strikes and partial shutdowns of factories, underscoring what experts call one of the most dramatic effects of three decades of startling growth: A seemingly endless supply of cheap labor is drying up, and workers are no longer willing to endure sweatshop-like conditions.

China's export-driven growth has long been linked to its abundance of workers -- mostly migrants from the impoverished countryside who jumped at the chance to escape a hardscrabble rural life to toil long hours in factories for meager wages.

If they were unhappy, they rarely expressed it through action, and if they did, they were quickly fired and replaced from among the hundreds of others waiting outside the factory gates.

Now all of that has started to change.

Shifting demographics, including years of effective population control through the government's "one child" policy, have left China short of younger workers, particularly in the crucial 15-25 age group that many factories rely on most. These young workers don't have to travel far from home like their parents did to find work. They are more aware of their rights. And having grown up in a more prosperous China, they are demanding a fairer share.

"The first generation of migrant workers made a lot of money compared with their poor life before," said Cai He, dean of sociology at Sun Yat-sen University. "But right now the majority of migrant workers are in their 20s. They were born in the 1980s. Most of them have no farming experience" and "are more sensitive to the disparity between the wealth of the city and their own poverty."

Cai added: "The younger people received a better education. They surf the Internet, use mobile phones and watch TV. Their awareness of their rights is much stronger than the older migrant workers."

These young workers are asserting those rights in the form of work stoppages, slowdowns and demands for higher wages and shorter hours. The unrest was highlighted by a strike that began May 17 at Honda's transmission factory in the city of Foshan, where hundreds of workers walked off the job. The Japanese carmaker had to shut its four assembly plants in China.

Around the same time, the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn electronics plant in Shenzhen, which assembles Apple iPhones and iPads, was struck by 10 suicides among its workers and three suicide attempts, which labor activists blamed on the stress of long overtime hours.

Bus and taxi drivers also have staged strikes this year, affecting tens of thousands of passengers.

The recent cases -- particularly the Honda strike -- are also noteworthy for receiving extensive coverage in the Chinese media. While labor unrest has become increasingly common across China in the past two years, experts said, most incidents typically go unreported.

"We're having major problems with labor unrest right now," said Sunil Balani, a Hong Kong-based businessman who exports garments to Europe from Chinese factories. "Some of our factories are running 30, maybe 40 percent empty at times."

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 of the University of Michigan, an expert on Chinese labor. Businessmen and academics predict that the wave of unrest would probably incre

ase, 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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