The recent uprisings of migrant workers in China are not isolated incidents.
Demands for unpaid wage arrears have often started the protests. Yet they also reflect discontent over a variety of labour violations in the factories.
More than 42 strikes took place last year. Workers have demanded better salaries, less overtime, adequate rest and better conditions.
These want a larger share of the fruits of China’s economic development, and more effective grievance mechanisms.
Workers in China are trapped. Millions of farmers are drawn to work in the factories because they provide free board. After losing their land they have no alternative but to sell their labour in the cities.
But factories also trap workers. The small salaries they earn (from 1,000 renminbi, or around £100 a month) can hardly support life in the cities—let alone higher education and a family.
These workers have no opportunities for promotion. Neither will they learn any skills for other industries.
They spend their lives trapped in the factories. All they can do is work excessive overtime to support themselves.
The recent string of suicides at the Foxconn factory, which produces iPhones, highlights the desperation workers face.
Economic development in China and the profits of multinational companies come at the expense of Chinese migrant workers.
But the factories can’t take all the blame for poor treatment of workers.
Multinationals outsource manufacturing to countries like China due to the cheap labour costs.
In order to compete in the international manufacturing market, China’s government does not tend to seriously enforce regulations.
Neither is there any effective system for workers with grievances.
Investigations by China Labor Watch found few factory workers who consider their trade union or workers’ representatives as able to assist with labour issues.
The recent riots are demands for better treatment, effective trade unions, collective bargaining and a system for grievances.
The Arab Spring has inspired Chinese workers on how to raise their complaints—by making them loud and in public.