This time the riot was not in the Middle East, not in troubled Africa but deep in the booming heartland of East Asia, in a workers’ dormitory in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, north China. At first it was a brawl between 2,000 factory workers and some security guards. Then it escalated into a full-blown riot and 5,000 police officers had to be called in to quell the mayhem.
What’s going on here? The factory involved is owned by Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology, one of the largest electronic companies in the world and a major supplier to corporate titans Apple and Microsoft. It employs about 1.1 million workers all over China.
An early New York Times report indicated the Chinese authorities were reluctant to admit the factory was turning out Apple’s iPhone 5. Later the Associated Press made no bones that the rioting workers were assembling a huge order of the product. There was an enormous production backlog in the face of an enormous demand for iPhone5.
Apple had been looking into the labor problems of Foxconn: several workers had committed suicide and there had been plant explosions that were apparently acts of sabotage. And so, last February Foxconn workers got a 16-25 percent increase in pay, which The Economist cited as evidence that Chinese workers were no longer happy to slave for coolie wages.
Rising Chinese wages could mean the end to cheap cellphones, cheap tablets, cheap appliances, cheap t-shirts. With such cheapness, the consumers of China’s trading partners were spared the rigors of inflation. Because of it, the American manufacturing sector, between 2000 and 2011, surrendered 5.4 million jobs.
But the days of Chinese cheapness are numbered. So are the days when Chinese workers will simply kowtow to the bosses of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which, in spite of its name, is just another government bureaucracy.
That the riot in Taiyuan took place at night in a dormitory and not in a factory speaks volumes. The workers were telling management, the government and the so-called union bosses, “It’s not the pay, stupid. It’s the working hours. We could use some sleep.”
The factory reopened after a shut-down of 24 hours, but the handwriting is already on the wall. So long as the Chinese workers are not allowed full exercise of their bargaining rights, they will keep resorting to the weapons of the weak: sabotage, riots and suicide. In fact, the Chinese workers are living the same struggle that American workers waged between the middle of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th.
American workers had to carry out a fierce struggle before their unions gained enough power to bargain and compel management to provide working conditions commensurate to their human dignity. They have come a long way: in the US presidential elections this November, they will have some say on who will be commander-in-chief.
Most of the American labor unions’ Asian counterparts don’t have as happy a history. Labor unions in Japan and in the Philippines saw periods when they wielded great influence. In recent years, they have been on the decline. In Indonesia, the democratic transition occasioned the passing of a great deal of labor legislation, some of which needs a good second look.
The Chinese workers have an even longer way to go. But already they are hinting to their government: economic development in China has gone so far ahead of its political development, the latter must catch up or there will be social upheaval. Economic growth isn’t enough. It’s time for more democracy.
As China’s economy continues to grow, the day draws near when the workers will shout: “No more exploitation! We are not selling our dignity for a piece of bread.” That’s the unspoken message of Taiyuan.