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China: The central role of migrant labour

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
In the second column in the series on China Charlie Hore looks at how workers from the countryside face harsh exploitation but also have great power
Issue 2266

The “economic miracle” of the last 20 years has seen China become the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter.

This was built on the backs of hundreds of millions of migrant workers.

Until a couple of years ago, China’s growth was mainly driven by exporting consumer goods to the West, especially to the US.

Most of the world’s computers, mobile phones, photocopiers, shoes and clothes are now made in China.

To give one example, 70 percent of all cigarette lighters now come from one city in southern China.

That huge rise has been made possible by a seemingly endless supply of migrant workers from the countryside.

They work 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, in dreadful conditions. Workers face locked fire exits, regular beatings by supervisors, and unpaid wages.

One official survey in 2003 found that three quarters of migrants had experienced difficulty collecting their wages.

And yet people kept coming—however bad the conditions, the wages were better than what they could make in their villages.

Throughout the 1990s and the early years of this century there was continuous resistance.

Workers left jobs constantly, hoping to find better ones. They also tried using new rights given by labour arbitration courts to force employers to pay back wages.

They also struck. In 1994-5 over 700 strikes took place in Guangdong province, which has around a third of the country’s migrant workers.

Those strikes often spread from factory to factory as neighbouring plants discovered they faced the same issues.

Many of them were successful, winning some—though usually not all—of their demands.

Nevertheless, these were almost all defensive battles against the worst excesses of particular employers, which did not improve conditions for most workers.

But a few years ago the well began to run dry. Migrant workers normally go home for two weeks for Chinese New Year, when a lot of plants close down.

In early 2006, the Guangdong authorities found that some two million migrants had not returned.

A survey the same year found that in almost three quarters of villages “there were no longer any surplus labourers to work in distant cities”.

This was partly caused by migrants moving to areas where wages are higher, but also by a more basic demographic shift.

In the early 1980s the government introduced the “one-child policy”. This limit on family size has drastically reduced the numbers of young people.

There are currently about 100 million people aged 19 to 22 (the peak age for migrant workers). By 2020 that will halve to just 50 million.

The economic crash of 2008 encouraged migration for a while, as some 20 to 25 million jobs were lost across China.

But by 2009 employers already reported shortages of workers, and provinces were again forced to raise minimum wages.

The summer of 2010 showed the extent to which some migrant workers had grasped their new power.

A series of offensive and highly-organised strikes took place in car plants, which rapidly spread to other factories.

They were marked by active picket lines, very specific demands and open shopfloor organisation. Almost all of them won big pay increases, though often at the cost of the sacking of some of the strike leaders.

But the other side of migrant workers’ lives was shown by the spate of suicides at the huge Foxconn plant, which makes iPhones and other Apple products.

Ten young workers killed themselves in less than a year as a result of monotony, forced overtime and lack of rights.

Migrants face discrimination in all areas of life.They now make up a third of Guangdong’s population, yet they have no residence rights, with most housing being tied to particular jobs.

This makes for an explosive mix. Migrants are aware of their greater power, and unwilling to put up with the conditions their parents endured.

Individual employers and councils have raised wages to stave off anger.

However, as one Western analyst noted: “A lot of the wage increase is to keep civil unrest at a minimum. These guys have watched North Africa and the Middle East with a lot of trepidation.”

China hasn’t yet had an explosion on that scale, but, as I will explore next week, the material conditions for one exist.


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