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China’s Summer Of Labor Unrest– deficit of workers’ rights is destabilizing the manufacturing sector

Posted by Author on July 25, 2010

Phelim Kine, The Forbes –

Cheap labor, no independent unions and a bottomless pool of impoverished migrant laborers. That model for China’s export manufacturing sector–which over the past three decades has made the country’s Pearl River Delta region the “workshop of the world–suddenly looks less certain than in the past. In recent months, a series of rolling strikes in southern Guangdong province by mostly migrant workers at factories for Japan’s Honda and Denso Corporation have up-ended popular conceptions of a workforce content with the calculated injustice of the status quo.

Labor unrest is nothing new in China. The majority of the country’s annual 100,000-odd “mass incidents” are local work stoppages by disaffected laborers ranging from taxi drivers to garment workers. State-owned factories in China’s northeast rustbelt region are particularly prone to wildcat strikes, though the combination of state-ownership and bans on domestic media coverage of such actions invariably gets workers back on the job through a combination of enticement and intimidation by management and local government.

The recent spate of strikes has defied that pattern and resulted in hard-won gains for the strikers. It helped that the factories were Japanese-owned, and therefore more politically acceptable targets of Chinese unrest, and that the domestic media was allowed to cover the events. The tenacity and solidarity of the youthful, tech-savvy organizers who used instant messaging and mobile phone technology to maintain their picket lines demonstrated a heightened awareness of workers’ rights.

The result? Rather than being strong-armed into submission, the Honda ( HMC – news – people ) and Denso employees have been able to bargain their way back to work with pay rises and some benefits.

But longer-term labor peace requires the Chinese government to do more than stifle labor activism or, on occasion, actually permit workers to negotiate with their employers. By proactively resolving the grievances stoking worker discontent, the Chinese government can buy itself a measure of labor peace essential to its official goals of “harmony” and “stability”–also prerequisites for maintaining strong foreign direct investment inflow.

The Chinese government should first take the simple but critical step of lifting its prohibition on independent unions and collective bargaining. China’s Trade Union Law, in direct violation of article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which China ratified in 2001, forbids any union activity outside the state-affiliated All-China Free Trade Union (ACFTU)……. (More detals from the Forbes)

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