Evidence continues to mount that the Chinese authorities are deliberately looking the other way when it comes to labour unrest. They don’t really have a choice. They either allow workers to get what they want in the form of moderate wage increases or face massive social dislocation from people who can’t keep their heads above water, financially.
The particular issues vary but they are all essentially protesting over the same thing: meeting rising costs of living. In some cities the issue is the cost of fuel, in others it the government’s failure to increase taxi fares, in others it is over the proliferation of unlicensed taxi cabs.
Interestingly not only has this taken place without any sort of crackdown, the mainstream press has been allowed to report on it, suggesting that it is less frowned on.
Even though the Chinese labour market seems inexhaustible to the ears of Westerners, it is still fairly mobile and low-end manufacturers are under pressure to find people who will work bottom-end wages. There are now more options out there. Their response has been to move up the value chain, making more high-end goods such as laptop computers and iPads where the output justifies the higher pay. The same progression took place in Japan and then Korea.
Where does China’s anemic official state union fit into this? Hardly at all, it seems. Generally wage increases have been won by ad hoc worker coalitions working on their own. Supply and demand seems to be enough to force up wages when people feel the pressure enough. I wonder what will happen in five to ten years when, analysts suggest, growth slows down.
- Shanghai and Hangzhou protests highlight growing frustration of taxi drivers across China (China Labour Bulletin, 3 August 2011)
- Mainland Chinese Media Face Up to Striking Workers (Forbes, 9 September 2011)
- China’s One-Child Policy is Crippling Industry (BusinessWeek, 12 September 2011)