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China’s Militant Workers Embrace Collective Action

8:31 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

China is the big business story of the 21st century, but is it also the big labor story?

A new report on China’s labor movement, covering about 1,170 strikes and other labor actions from mid-2011 through 2013, illuminates how what is arguably the world’s biggest proletariat is growing more agitated and polarized.

Despite China’s seemingly miraculous economic boom, in many ways, its emergent labor struggles are strikingly similar to those experienced by workers in more developed economies: weak-to-zero collective bargaining rights, a lack of social and health protections, the poverty and instability facing interregional migrant labor, global economic volatility and consequent job insecurity. And of course, that’s all in a fractious atmosphere of breakneck national growth rates, greater economic ambitions among the working class and soaring inequality.

Manufacturing workers are feeling the tension between middle-class aspirations and working-class problems, and many are growing increasingly militant in asserting their labor rights. The report’s author, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) observes that the shift is driven by a deepening sense of social rights on the political and economic fronts, including “earning a living wage, creating a safe work environment and being treated with dignity and respect by the employer.”

The rising militancy (and even class consciousness) across the industrial workforce is being facilitated by the expansion of digital communications networks—as more workers begin to enjoy the tech gadgets they’ve been producing for rich countries all these years—as well as the destabilization of workers under volatile global trade flows. CLB reports: “Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries. Some 40 percent of the strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin from mid-2011 to the end of 2013 were in the manufacturing sector.”

Without a free media or independent unions, it’s hard to tell how unified China’s workers are or can be, but CLB describes bread-and-butter struggles at various multinational factories, as well as public sector workforces such as teachers battling wage arrears and sanitation workers denied social insurance. Read the rest of this entry →

Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

4:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Electronics assemblers in Shenzhen, China, where a recent report detailed substandard conditions at a Dell factory. (Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

There is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

Read the rest of this entry →

More Bad Apple: Watchdog Exposes New Chinese Factory Abuses

3:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The workers’ dormitories are often dirty and cramped, with eight to 12 workers in a room and often inadequate sanitation facilities, according to the China Labor Watch report. (Courtesy of China Labor Watch)

Originally published at In These Times

Apple’s growth and reputation for innovation have long been built on the shaky foundation of rock-bottom wages and poor labor conditions in Chinese factories. Now, a new investigation by the New York-based advocacy group China Labor Watch has further revealed the abuses, including wage violations and chemical exposures, at the warped core of Apple’s corporate empire. The report focused on Apple supplier the Pegatron Group, which has become a major producer of an upcoming new model for a scaled-back “cheap iPhone” for lower-end markets.

The most infamous of Apple’s labor problems were the widely reported the Foxconn suicides of 2010–when several workers at the Taiwanese-owned Apple contractor’s mega-compounds in China threw themselves from buildings in despair over their working conditions. Apple has since waged a highly publicized campaign to raise labor standards and wages at supplier factories.

Pegatron—a smaller company, with a mere 70,000 employees, though it counts among its clients not only Apple but also Dell, HP and Microsoft—has avoided the kind of negative publicity that Foxconn garnered. But CLW’s research on three Pegatron workplaces, two in Shanghai and one in nearby Suzhou, suggests that labor exploitation is hardwired into the entire production model for brand-name electronics manufacturing in China.

The report, based on field investigations and interviews with employees, found that workers at Pegatron still facing grueling conditions. Work shifts typically run about 11 hours, with an hourly wage of about $1.50. At the three factories investigated, according to the report, “average weekly working hours… are approximately 66 hours, 67 hours, and 69 hours.” At the same time, Apple has claimed “its suppliers had achieved 99 percent compliance with Apple’s 60-hour work week rule.” (In fact, China’s standard workweek is technically just 49 hours, but workers are typically pressured to work excessive overtime.) Read the rest of this entry →

Boss-napped: What We Can Learn From China’s Labor Banditry

7:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Many workers struggle to hold onto their job, but when you’re feeling especially insecure about your employment situation, you might want to try to hold onto your boss instead. Last month, a worker-led siege at a factory near Beijing gave the world a dramatic glimpse into the workplace dynamics of Chinese capitalism.

When workers at Specialty Medical Supplies confronted their American boss, Chip Starnes, over concerns about wages and layoffs, the dispute escalated into a tense—but nonviolent—hostage situation. Starnes was held under lockdown at the facility for six days. The conflict was resolved,CNN reported, when “Starnes reached an agreement with the workers after a pay dispute. Officials said 97 employees signed a new compensation agreement.” Starnes later claimed he was forcibly held for ransom.

Though there have been other incidents of workers in China holding bosses captive in labor disputes, the captivity of a U.S. executive attracted worldwide media attention and drew some commentary on the “risks” of foreign investment in China’s restive workforce.

However, the standoff actually speaks to another kind of risk: the deep job insecurity faced by millions of Chinese workers on the wild frontier of globalization. And despite appearances, there was more method than madness to the hostage taking.

According to news reports, the clash began when the company moved to shutter one sector of the plant and ship jobs to India. Some workers were reportedly offered transfers to other divisions; others could leave their job with severance packages. The official story was that conflict arose when some who were slated for transfer also demanded compensatory payment.

But workers claimed the protest was actually about wage arrears, and that when they saw that “no new materials had entered the factory,” they also feared Starnes was actually planning a mass layoff. While confusion over the terms of severance might have been a factor, workers had justifiable fears of getting shafted.

After all, in 2012, millions of workers were involved in complaints about unpaid back wages and business shutdowns. The estimated number of unemployed is approaching 920 thousand. Read the rest of this entry →

A More Democratic Foxconn? No One Told the Workers

12:52 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

SACOM Apple protest, Hong Kong (Lennon Ying-Dah Wong via flickr / creative commons)

With a workforce of more than one million, the electronics giant Foxconn has enough workers in its Chinese factories to fill a small country. So it’s fitting that the company has vowed to make its manufacturing kingdom a bit more democratic by encouraging union elections.

But although the company announced its push for union democracy in February, a subsequent study by academics in Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that many workers don’t even know whether they’re in a union, and many others don’t have a clear idea of what their union does or how it works. And that actually makes perfect sense, since China’s unions are ill-defined, bureaucratized institutions –politically ineffective by design.

The union plan is part of a host of promised reforms that followed public scrutiny of Foxconn’s premiere client, Apple. The Apple brand has come under fire from advocacy groups and the media for profiting from the exploitation of young Foxconn workers – underscored by a series of employee suicides stretching from 2010 to just a few weeks ago.

As Working In These Times noted when the plan was announced in February, the idea of “democratizing” unions at Foxconn should be viewed skeptically since official unions are linked to the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which tends to collude with employers in ignoring or suppressing autonomous labor action.

While labor movements in many regions, including the U.S. and Europe, face a tension between militant labor activism and “cooperative” union structures based on “partnership” with management, in a non-democratic nation like China, where unions are aligned with the government, activism and the official unions are fundamentally at odds. As many activists and reporters have pointed out, the most critical strikes and protests in recent years have been illegal and unsanctioned—many of them spontaneous wildcat strikes that sprung up out of frustration with management. Such unrest is precisely what the ACFTU is designed to pre-empt and contain, not foster. Read the rest of this entry →

Bus Strike Exposes Social Divides in Singapore

4:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(xcode via flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

A spontaneous strike in November, the first in 26 years, shook up the tight social order of Singapore. As with many aspects of this gleaming global trade hub, the labor action was an import, of sorts. The agitators were Chinese bus drivers protesting the transit company SMRT’s policy of paying Chinese migrants less than other workers. Though the action was relatively limited, with about 171 drivers refusing to work, it did break the law and disrupted the city-state’s usual ultra-efficiency for two days.

In late February, a Singaporean court sentenced four strike leaders to jail for up to seven weeks, despite widespread criticism of the charges from human rights activists. Authorities had already sent a strong warning message by levying heavy fines on some participants and deporting 29 back to China.

For decades, Singapore has been an emblem of the post-colonial Pacific dream, boasting a robust economy, relatively wealthy citizens and a well-oiled bureaucracy. But the unrest among the migrant Chinese drivers, who make up nearly a quarter of SMRT’s total workforce of 2,000 drivers and earn significantly less than their coworkers, underscores the divide between the migrants, who comprise about 35 percent of the workforce, and the “native” Singaporeans, many of whom are uncomfortable with the growing reliance on foreign labor. Read the rest of this entry →

Can We Trust Foxconn’s New ‘Democratic’ Chinese Factories?

10:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoon Work (

Originally posted at In These Times

A few years ago, the multinational tech manufacturer Foxconn, a brand previously vaunted as a symbol of China’s 21st century industrial ascent, was marred by the image of miserable young factory workers flinging themselves off of buildings. So the company rolled into damage control mode with typical efficiency: Along with emergency suicide nets installed outside dormitories came a flurry of plans for morale-boosting, like deploying therapists, monks and “2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers” to lift spirits. At a management-sponsored pep rally, some workers were spotted in “I Love Foxconn” shirts—positive thinking through casualwear.

And now, Foxconn is rewarding that love by introducing its young, sometimes rambunctious,occasionally suicidal workforce to the virtues of workplace democracy.

The company has announced that workers will be able to vote for union representatives at their factories. The plan, according to news reports, is to allow workers to elect “junior workers” to represent them in a union leadership structure historically dominated by management and officials. In a union system closely linked to the political establishment and employers, the goal, it seems, is to keep labor relations smooth as factories churn out their signature Apple product lines.

The scene of the cheery workers wearing their love for their company on their chests is a good backdrop for evaluating the voting reforms and other efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn. What’s really helping workers? And what’s simply polishing the Foxconn’s image? Following widespread media coverage of the cluster of suicides, Foxconn and Apple have engaged in a well-publicized auditing process and vowed to raise labor standards. But despite reports showing incremental improvements in the notoriously hyper-stressful factory conditions (as well as some persistent labor violationsmany questions remain on whether these changes are really changing workers’ day-to-day lives or influencing global manufacturing standards as a whole.

Though the promise of a more direct election system at Foxconn (paralleling similar initiatives at other workplaces) suggests Foxconn is yielding to public and worker-driven pressure for a more responsive management structure, elections will not ensure equitable collective bargaining rights, and they are definitely no guarantee of genuine respect for workers’ fundamental freedom of association. Contrary to popular perceptions, many Chinese workplaces are nominally unionized, with millions of union members nationwide. The massive state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is tasked with keeping labor roughly in line with neoliberal economic policies, though growing social unrest in recent years has heightened attention to workers’ issues in official political circles.

Historically, these official unions have acted as tools for management rather than channels for advocacy. According to a 2010 report by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, economic liberalization and whirlwind of privatization led to a transfer of union leadership from the official state to a state-friendly managerial classand workers’ hardships and disenfranchisement persisted:

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WalMart Empire Clashes with China

3:34 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Nik McGettigan (via

Typically when we hear “WalMart” and “China” in the same sentence, we picture the “made in” labels on our toys, gadgets, and the other mass-produced stuff that we grab off the shelves at low low prices. But WalMart’s vast retail empire has a whole other wing in the Middle Kingdom. As the brand has expanded aggressively into the coveted China market, it has engendered a new wave of Chinese shoppers–and legions of workers to serve them. The rise of a Westernized consumer culture has also generated familiar tensions around labor, inequality and workplace rights.

Just in time, too: as demonstrations mushroomed WalMart stores and warehouses nationwide, a disgruntled WalMart employee was leading a small uprising in the coastal boomtown of Shenzhen. His agitating and organizing work has led to a partnership with SACOM, a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization that has previously taken on the notorious Apple manufacturer Foxconn.

The conflict began last summer when Wang Shishu, a 52-year-old WalMart store employee and outspoken labor activist, helped lead a campaign against plans to cut pay and slash benefits. When a small strike involving about forty workers broke out, the management cracked down.

According to SACOM’s petition: Read the rest of this entry →

China Labor Watchdogs Expose Dark Side of Global Toy Empire

8:00 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


(Plounsbury, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Despite the occasional factory fire or sweatshop media expose, American consumers have largely inured themselves to the status quo of exploiting the Global South as our overseas workshop for cheap clothes, toys and gadgets. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, consumers have affixed even more tightly the corporate blinders, rendering the workers in Santa’s Workshop comfortably invisible.

But some of the factories churning out hot toys have recently been exposed as bastions of labor abuse. According to an investigation by the New York-based watchdog group China Labor Watch,several toy-industry supplier factories in China (which have collectively produced for famous clients like Mattel, Disney and Hasbro) have flouted both international ethical standards and Chinese law. The extensive investigation, based in part on worker interviews, uncovered troubling conditions:

CLW’s investigation revealed at least 15 sets of violations in four factories together employing about 10,000 workers: illegal overtime pay, excessive overtime, forced labor, myriad safety concerns, a lack of safety training, a lack of physical exams, inability to resign from work, blank labor contracts, unpaid work, a lack of social insurance, use of dispatch workers, a lack of a living wage, poor living conditions, unreasonable rules, and a lack of effective grievance channels. Read the rest of this entry →

Foxconn Riot Flashes a Glimpse of China’s Slow-burning Labor Crisis

6:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

On September 23, in Taiyuan, China, about 2,000 workers erupted in a burst of anger, leaving a factory compound scarred with broken glass and flames. But the trouble was just as quickly extinguished, and it’s now back to business as usual at Foxconn, one of the world’s premier electronics makers.

While details of the fracas, which left many injured, are still emerging, the pattern is familiar: the uprising reflected increasing unrest throughout China’s manufacturing workforce, as well as the intense workplace stress that has become a hallmark of the Foxconn empire since a string of well-publicized worker suicides in 2010. The question now is whether this tension will ultimately be channeled into direct action that might yield long-term changes in the global production chain that manufactures our prized gadgets.

Read the rest of this entry →