2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
The heroic and inspiring struggles of China’s working class will only lay the ground for new and improved exploitation methods – unless, that is, the struggle turns political – and socialist.“I do the same thing every day,” said one employee at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where more than ten workers have committed suicide. “I have no future.” Many, perhaps most, workers will know exactly how he feels. But to the bourgeois mind, it’s all an impenetrable puzzle. There was something criminally stupid and sickeningly idiotic about the reaction to the suicides of Terry Gou, the billionaire founder and chairman of the company, which makes electronic parts for the likes of Apple and Dell. According to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek (7 June), Gou said that he had no idea why the suicides were happening. “From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that,” said Gou. “No matter how you force me, I don’t know.” Another worker interviewed at the factory might have given the hapless Gou a few clues: conversation and human interaction on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to ten minutes every two hours, and workers are yelled at frequently and fined for breaking the rules. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph (27 May), the pace of work in China is so intense that 50,000 workers a month burn out. When the workers go home at night, their hands continue to twitch and mimic the motion of the production line. Overtime last year was an average of 120 hours per month per worker, bringing their weekly hours up to 70. And yet Gou continues to apply his mind in vain to the intricacies of science and logic in search of an answer to the mystery of the suicides. While the search goes on, the company installed netting around outdoor stairwells of dormitory buildings to prevent people from jumping. It’s nice to hear that they care so much. The desperate measures taken by the poor souls at Foxconn have succeeded, however, in making things slightly better for the workers they left behind. Foxconn has since boosted wage levels by 30 percent and promised further 66 percent rises from October – conditional, of course, on worker performance.
A slightly happier story of worker revolt comes from the Denso car parts plant in China’s southern province of Guandong. A 21-year-old worker, who had never been on strike before, told the Observer’s Jonathan Watts (4 July) that she was worried, yet excited and determined when the action began. “We started our shift at the normal time, but instead of working we just walked around and around the workshop for eight hours. The managers asked us to return to our jobs, but nobody did.” The next day this was repeated, the corporate union begging the workers to return to work. Again they refused. There was no chanting, no speeches, no violence. Nervous of a crackdown from the ruling ‘Communist’ Party, the workers have acted very cleverly. Nobody is named as a leader or organiser, leaflets are used to make demands instead of computers or mobile phones, which can be traced to individuals, and, on the day of the strike, the frustrated management had to push for the official union to organise a vote so that there was someone to negotiate with. But a quiet and dignified determination not to work until the demands for improved pay were met won the day.
This struggle, and many more like them, along with a fall in the numbers in the reserve army of labour, have improved the bargaining position of workers in China, and wage levels are now predicted to be on an unstoppable upward trend. The “spate of strikes has thrown a spanner into the workshop of the world,” says The Economist. There are lessons here for all workers, and other groups in southeast Asia and the rest of China have not been slow to learn them. If the factory down the road or just across the border has won 50-odd percent or more pay rises, and improved conditions, why not us? Labour disputes in China were 30 percent higher in 2009 than a year earlier, and Guangdong alone saw at least 36 strikes between 25 May and 12 July, according to the Economist. Several cities have raised the minimum wage by up to 20 percent. Chinese labour costs have tripled in the decade after 1995 (although this was offset, for the capitalists, by a fivefold increase in productivity). And the example is beginning to spread, not only throughout China, but throughout the rest of the southeast Asian region too, especially in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos – regions with reserves of cheap labour, and which capitalists have been eyeing up, along with inland areas in China, as possible alternative locations for their businesses if the Chinese workers get too ‘bolshy’.
But, interestingly, this is not generally seen in the bourgeois press, including the papers so far quoted, as a bad thing. This might surprise those who are used to seeing wage demands and union organising closer to home ritually denounced as silly, greedy, selfish, and so on. This is the standard liberal line of being against all wars, and in favour of all progressive movements for change, as long as they took place in the past, or are happening in another country. But there are also sound, pro-capitalist reasons for welcoming the strikes and the pay rises. The capitalists and their representatives in the press will probably have been led to these reasons more by their practical involvement in the world and their nose for profit than any deep understanding of theory. But for those of us familiar with Marxian theory, their pronouncements were entirely predictable. Look at the history of China through Marxian lenses, and the motivation behind Western capitalists’ cautious welcoming of Chinese wage struggles will become clear.
China’s textbook development
“As students of Karl Marx and of history, China’s party leaders will know that labour movements can begin with economic grievances and end in political revolt. By concentrating people in one place, Marx argued, factories turn a crowd of strangers into a ‘class’: conscious of its interests, united with each other and against the boss.”