Chinese Workers Show Their Class

Suicide is Dangerous… for Capitalist Profit

The New York Times announced on 6 June

"The body of a 19-year-old worker named Ma Xiangqian was found in front of his high-rise dormitory at 4:30 a.m. Police investigators concluded that he had leapt from a high floor, and they ruled it a suicide. _His family, including his 22-year-old sister who worked at the same company, Foxconn Technology, said he hated the job he had held only since November - an 11-hour overnight shift, seven nights a week, forging plastic and metal into electronics parts amid fumes and dust. Or at least that was Mr. Ma’s job until, after a run-in with his supervisor, he was demoted in December to cleaning toilets._ Mr. Ma’s pay stub shows that he worked 286 hours in the month before he died, including 112 hours of overtime, about three times the legal limit. For all of that, even with extra pay for overtime, he earned the equivalent of $1 an hour."

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That was in January. Another ten young Chinese workers have committed suicide since then, the latest of them last week. The Taiwanese-owned plant at Longhua near Shenzen in southern China employs over 300,000 workers and is thought to be the largest factory complex in the world. It manufactures products for some of the globally best known electronic brands such as Apple, Hewlett Packard and Dell. Around 90% of the plant's workers are aged between 18 and 24. Predictably wages are low, although certainly not the lowest by Chinese standards, and employees normally work 12 hour shifts of monotonous work. Foxconn effectively controls its workers lives 24 hours a day, because it is not just a factory, it is a factory town where the largely migrant workforce live in Foxconn dormitories (about 9 to a room) and spend what little free time they have in Foxconn leisure facilities. The combination of dismal low paid work and almost total corporate control of their daily lives is increasingly unbearable for the young workers who have greater expectations from life than the mere subsistence that earlier generations were satisfied with. The Foxconn model is not uncommon throughout the Chinese manufacturing sector where numerous factory towns have been created in recent years.

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Suicides are bad for business especially when the media in Foxconn’s main markets get hold of the story. The firm has rushed to point out (accurately enough) that the suicides are 30% less than the Chinese average (and way below that for the overall rate for women in China). They also have pointed to the fact that the complex has an Olympic size swimming pool. Both comments show that they don’t get it. Workers come to Foxconn in the hope of building a future. Instead they walk into a futuresque production system which reduces them to mere appendages of the machine. When the story broke, Terry Gao, the Taiwanese businessman, who set up Foxconn in 1988, rushed to the plant to deliver a lecture to the workers to restore morale. 30% wage rises were promised (and as we go to press further wage rises have been offered). The firm also tried to get workers to sign documents promising not to attempt suicide! Within a short time after Gao departed another worker committed suicide. Gao has now ordered thousands of square metres of netting to be put round all the buildings. Adding to the cage-like atmosphere in the complex that is sure to make the workers feel better! The firm’s latest move is to offer another 66% wage rise after 1 October provided the staff meet certain productivity criteria. The first age rise of 30% only brings the Shenzhen workers up to the legal minimum wage and you shudder to think what increasing productivity to get the second rise means, in a place like this where the rhythm of work is already so fast. However as Apple founder, Steve Jobs, has announced that Foxconn is “no sweatshop” that must means that everything is hunkydory!

The Honda Strike

Clearly there is a huge level of dissatisfaction within the Chinese working class and the Foxconn suicides are individual expressions of alienation and desperation felt by workers. However in the last few weeks workers have been expressing their dissatisfaction in more positive ways. On 21 May a strike broke out at the Honda transmission plant in Guandong province which brought all of Honda's Chinese car manufacturing to a halt for two weeks. This was the largest and most significant strike at a single factory in recent Chinese history. About 1000 workers out of a workforce of 1,800 had demanded a pay rise of 800 yuan ($117) a month (or a more than 75% wage rise as their basic pay is about $150 a month) but the company only offered 366 yuan. It is not yet clear how the strike has been settled (or even if it really has been settled) but the company claims that by offering 15% now and a further 10% in July they got the workers to return to work on Saturday 5 June. However the New York Times reported on 6 June that this had not happened and the strike was still in progress. Honda are trying to get the workers to sign a document agreeing not to organise, or take part in, future strikes but there are reports of these being defaced by workers who are refusing to sign them. One thing is clear this was more than a strike over wages. It is also about the beginning of the formation of a proletarian class consciousness in China.

We are not striking for the 1,800 employees but looking after the interests of all workers in the whole country. We want to set a good example of how their rights are protected,

workers told Western media.

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They have also attacked as useless the official state unions which exist to prevent strikes. In China there is no actual anti-strike law but the unions really are policemen on the shopfloor. This means that are now rejecting them and trying to strike or organise themselves independently. This is not new in China as there are more than a thousand workers (no-one can be sure of the precise number) languishing in the regime’s gaols for trying to do just that over the last ten years or more.

What is also significant is that China has seen frequent strikes, riots and other forms of social unrest over the last two decades (see, for example, Recession in China, Workers Start to Fight Back in Revolutionary Perspectives 48) but the Chinese Communist Party has usually keep them out of the news. A few discreet arrests here, the blaming of the odd local official there, an initial agreement to meet demands followed by the later arrest of the activists have been the stuff of ruling class policy. Instead, in the Foxconn and Honda cases the state (up to a point) has allowed a lot more publicity and features the issues on its own broadcasts. There seem to be two motives here. On the one hand the current resistance throughout China is becoming too obvious to be swept under the carpet. Hyundai workers, for example succeeded in forcing the South Korean giant company into giving big wage rises to workers in its Beijing plant only a few days before the Honda strike erupted. On another level all three firms are owned by “foreign devils” who also happen to be nearby Asian competitors (South Korea, Taiwan and Japan). They make easy targets with which to whip up nationalism (which the regime frequently resorts in the last two cases especially in regard to Japanese wartime atrocities).

There is also a danger that Chinese workers will buy the idea that Western-style “free” trades unions are the answer to all their problems.

If class struggle is to develop it must not only challenge nationalist diversions fostered by the government but also the pure economism advocated by Han Donfang, a former railway electrician, who was imprisoned by the government after Tianamen Square and works as a trade union activist in Hong Kong. Han has avowed to “depoliticise the labour movement in China” and advocates the separation of economic and political rights. In expressing these views he is not so far from his former gaolers, the Chinese 'Communist' Party who are alarmed by the potential for social instability brought about by the widening wealth gap and are happy to see some increases in pay (particularly for workers employed by foreign corporations) in order to head off class struggle. The class struggle in China will inevitably deepen as all the wage rises so far promised to some of the best paid workers in China will not set anyone on the path to a secure existence. Workers in China will need to reject these bourgeois ideologies if they are to deepen their struggle in a meaningful way. Ultimately they will have to recognize that real emancipation can only be achieved by a political struggle around a programme based on the historical lessons of the world working class everywhere. In order to do this they will have to link up with workers everywhere in a real internationalist communist in order to overthrow both the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist party and the capitalist system it feeds off.

PBD

Comments

What a sad, depressing and unhappy situation this quality article elaborates. But it's good to hear that there's the beginning of the formation of a proletarian class consciousness in China. So, Chinese workers, don't kill yourselves but ruin the bosses instead. That's much more fun. And poor old Steve Jobs, even he was unable to see the light, despite how clever he was. But you wouldn't expect somebody so rich to appreciate the idea of communism would you? For that you have to be truly exceptionable and a truly advanced thinker. In other words, working class.

Revolutionary Perspectives

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Revolutionary Perspectives #54

Series 3, No. 54, Summer 2010

  • Editorial
  • The Only Way Forward is to Unite and Fight
  • Class War at BA: Solidarity not Legality
  • Financial Crisis Engulfs the Eurozone
  • Chinese Workers SHow Their Class
  • BP’s Deepwater Horizon: Capitalism is the Disaster
  • The Bolshevik Left and Worker’s Power
  • The Armenian Genocide 1915
  • Review: Capitalism - A Love Story
  • Life of the Organisation