China’s labour force stands up against repressive system

Civic Action14 Jul 2011Evert-jan Quak

The news is spreading: China’s new generation of migrant workers in the booming export industry are roaring their voice. The number and intensity of protests is on the rise in China’s urban industrial areas. Read for example Reuters’ special report “China migrant unrest exposes generation faultline”. Also the Financial Times came with an article about the emerging unrest of “China’s army of migrant workers”.

Interesting is that it is the new generation of young workers that are in the forefront of this fight. Better educated young workers (mostly migrants) expected to benefit from China’s economic boom, but many are still paid little and have no health insurance because of the discriminatory hukou “household registration” system. This generation does not share the self-sacrificing ethos of their parents. They are on the internet and share information with their mobile phones and are ready for action.

It’s the gaps in income and privilege that irk them, but they face the Communist Party against them. There are stories of violence but it is difficult to identify the whole picture. And it is not only China, also in other countries in Asia (for example Vietnam) workers are increasingly on strike for better rights and salaries.

Is this the turning point in the development of China and other Asian countries to shift from a cheap labour economy to a more balanced economy with more opportunities for the growing amount of educated youngsters? The history shows that the poor are willing to accept tough work in manufactures or mining as long as they can dream to get out the poverty trap, at least their children. But they will not accept it if during the years their bosses get richer year after year when they face failures or shortcomings in the improvement of labour rights, the minimum wage, social security standards, and without access to health and other services.

For that reason a sustainable economy needs good social standards along with the environmental aspects of sustainability, but they remain mostly not mentioned. Indeed there are improvements made, especially in China, but what workers want is a living income, no discrimination, equal access to services, labour rights that allow them to raise their voice without fear. And that’s not the easiest part in turning the economy into a fair and sustainable direction.