China's workers unite: You have nothing to lose but your gains

By Kevin Clarke| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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"China's done," a hedge-fund manager of my acquaintance told me last year, across a table strewn with Rosetta Stone CDs. What language was he so eagerly attempting to assimilate now (He had perfected Mandarin years ago)? Vietnamese, he said, explaining how his fund was prepping him to seek and absorb whatever new opportunities awaited in a nation the United States once spent years and billions attempting to bomb into submission, a communist nation conquered thoroughly now by U.S. greenbacks, as accepted on its streets, if not more welcome, than the local currency.

It was probably something of an exaggeration to pronounce China "done." For U.S. and European corporations seeking to reduce labor costs, China, with its teeming, tempest-tossed millions seeking gainful employment remains a profound draw, but there is no denying that something is changing in the Middle Kingdom. In recent months labor demonstrations against major car manufacturers Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda have led to dramatic wage increases and mitigation of China's legendarily brutal work schedules. Foxconn, a major manufacturer of consumer products for Dell, Apple, HP, Sony and other manufacturers familiar to any First World consumer, has been forced into a major reevaluation of its salaries and overtime policies. An alarming number of worker suicides generated an avalanche of critical international media attention and forced Foxconn to move a little beyond its initial proposal for resolving the problem: suicide netting draped strategically around the manufacturing buildings and dormitories within its vast worker complexes.

A new generation of Chinese worker is emerging fed up with China's position as lowest common denominator for global labor standards and empowered enough to sidestep Beijing's fake industrial unions to create their own, often innovative, collective bargaining entities. They want the income to actually purchase some of the gizmos they are soldering together and the time off to enjoy them. Results so far have been spectacular and have not drawn a counter-attack from China's political apparitchiks, who are either unwilling to challenge this emerging force-yet-or view it as a welcome counterbalance to the power of foreign capital.

To their shame, if they had any, some manufacturers are already writing Chinese workers off, heading for more promising pools of exploitable workers in Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia. Some are simply pulling up shop from the heavily industrialized coastal zones where Chinese workers are awakening and heading inland to the vast plains of China where enough out-of-work still remain to suppress manufacturing wages.

Most ironically of course is the return of some low-skilled manufacturing jobs to U.S. shores as increases in Chinese labor costs and vast savings in shipping tip the balance toward labor sources closer to intended markets in the United States. While the return of some jobs to the United States is welcome, particularly in the era of a 17 percent real unemployment, it's a little disheartening that the fundamental model of labor v. capital remains unexamined and unaltered. Global manufacturers who enjoy few restraints on capital flows continue to pit workers against each other based on national borders and degrees desperation for work, juggling levels of hunger vs. profit maximization with little consciousness of the possibility, 200 or 300 years or so into this experiment called free market capitalism, if there might be a better way to match goods with consumers.

Still, I guess that newly hired workers at Wham-O factories—now that that manufacturer of such U.S. icons as the Frisbee has shifted a significant percentage of its production back to the United States—are less worried about theory and solidarity than they are about putting food on the table and staving off foreclosure. Onward and upward we go . . . ?