By Mary E. Gallagher
This spring, a series of well-coordinated and successful strikes in foreign-invested enterprises in China made headlines all around the world. Young migrant workers openly and forcefully articulated demands for higher wages, better representation, and more consideration of their “spiritual” and mental well-being. These demands have led to increased speculation that China’s current economic boom is winding down, as its growth strategy founded in part on cheap migrant labor from rural areas faces domestic and international difficulties.
This is not the first time that Chinese workers have openly protested for higher wages, better treatment, and more job security. What makes this period more important and potentially much more consequential is the confluence of demographic, social and political trends that have increased the bargaining power of employees for the first time in two decades. Workers are now protesting in a position of relative strength after a long period of perceiving that the economic and political trends were against them.
Travelling to China three different times this summer has offered me some time to observe this phenomenon from different locations, different perspectives, and in different points of time – when large strikes were still occurring in June to now in late August where strike activity has quieted down. Foxconn’s management just unleashed their 50,000 strong “worker party” with domestic and international media showing bizarre photos of underpaid workers holding up posters of Terry Guo that say “Love Me, Love You, Love Terry.” New Life Movement ideology combines with the CCP’s “your factory is home” propaganda to create a mishmash of capitalist company-driven paternalism and “work-unit socialism:” low pay, Taylorist work organization, company control and oversight of a worker’s life, but without the security and benefits of the now quaint “iron-rice bowl.”