Heralded by an unprecedented series of walkouts, the first stirrings of unrest have emerged among the millions of youthful migrant workers who supply seemingly inexhaustible cheap labor for the vast expanse of factories in China's booming Pearl River Delta.
The signs of newly assertive Chinese workers have jolted foreign and Chinese factory owners, who for the last two decades have churned out everything from Nikes to baby dolls with unbeatably low production costs. Some have concluded that the raw era in which rootless Chinese villagers would accept whatever job they could get may be drawing to a close, raising questions about China's long-term future as world headquarters for low-paid outsourcing.
"One dollar, two dollars, it used to be they didn't care," said Tom Stackpole, originally from Massachusetts, who is quality control director here for Skechers USA Inc. and has been involved in shoe manufacturing in southern China for a decade. "That has passed."
Stella International Ltd., a Taiwanese-owned shoe manufacturer employing 42,000 people in and around Dongguan, faced strikes this spring that turned violent. At one point, more than 500 rampaging workers sacked company facilities and severely injured a Stella executive, leading hundreds of police to enter the factory and round up ringleaders.
"We never had anything like that before," said Jack Chiang, Stella's chief executive.
Chiang suggested that several factors have contributed to the shift in attitude. On the one hand, he acknowledged, assembly-line wages have not risen in recent years nearly as fast as the cost of living. On the other, image-conscious U.S. retailers who buy Dongguan's shoes have demanded better treatment and human rights counseling for the workers, encouraging them to step up and make demands for change.
Finally, Chiang added, broader general freedoms in the country have reduced the Chinese people's traditional fear of authority, and not just among factory workers. Protests by farmers and others, many of them violent, have broken out with increasing frequency across the country in recent months.
The growing assertiveness of factory workers has posed a particular political problem for the governing Communist Party, which ideologically should champion poor laborers struggling against capitalist managers. But local governments have become shareholders in many of the factories, steering officials toward the management side of labor relations.
"The government is the largest boss in the area," said Liu Kaiming, a labor analyst and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in nearby Shenzhen.
Lack of representation
Apparently eager to show solidarity with restless workers, the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only legal union in the country, recently issued a reminder that the law requires foreign as well as Chinese companies to accept federation branches wherever workers demand it. The official federation announced Thursday that Wal-Mart, the American merchandizing giant, had agreed to allow unions in its factories in China.
But factory owners and workers in the Pearl River boom zone said the official union does little to represent labor, even in the rare cases when branches are formed, because it is a spinoff of local governments that own or rely on the businesses. In one factory, Liu recounted, the union head was both a management executive and a senior official in the local government.
Even when they do not directly own companies, local governments have a high stake in preserving the Pearl River Delta's role as a magnet for U.S., Japanese and other firms seeking cheap labor unencumbered by unions. Foreign companies have invested more than $50 billion in the region over the last five years, contributing to a 14 percent growth rate in the local economy, compared with 9 percent countrywide.
The result has been a near-total lack of representation for the millions of workers, most of them 18- to 22-year-old women, who toil on assembly lines more than 60 hours a week for wages that amount to about $120 a month. According to standard practice, most live at their factories in company-provided dormitories and eat in company cafeterias -- and then hand back a third of their pay for food and lodging.
Some villagers, unhappy with such meager leftover savings, have gone home, and factory managers have begun to encounter labor shortages for the first time. Although recruits are still abundant for most areas, they said, the most sought-after workers -- young women with high school educations -- have become scarce in recent months, particularly in Dongguan's low-paying shoe industry.
Sense of frustration
Conversations with workers outside Dongguan plants one recent day revealed a sense of frustration about having no place to turn with complaints about overtime, wage levels or the quality of their food. The conversations -- guarded because of workers' fears of retribution -- also displayed little hope of improvement because, in their view, management enjoys overwhelming power.
"There is not much communication between the top management and the workers," said Mao Wei, 20, who came to Dongguan a year ago from Shaanxi province to work in the region's numerous shoe factories. Mao said workers have little contact with anyone above their line supervisors, who themselves have little standing to forward complaints or demand higher wages.
"Most migrant workers have to give up their rights to keep their jobs," said another 20-year-old factory worker, who wanted to be called only Miss Chen. "But to be frank, we are not here for rights. We are here for money. I have to wire money back every month to support my family."
With no channels of communication from the assembly line to the manager's office, the only outlets for worker dissatisfaction have been walkouts and confrontations. According to Stackpole, the shoe industry in the Dongguan area has encountered 10 or 12 walkouts over the last year, previously unheard of during his long experience in the region.
"As translated to us, they just wanted someone to listen to them," Stackpole added.
The walkouts were organized in advance but not by formal labor groups or permanent worker committees, he said, and most were resolved without violence within a few hours. Nevertheless, they signaled that docility among Chinese migrant workers can no longer be taken for granted.
In the latest unrest, about 1,000 workers staged a walkout on Nov. 7 at the Shanlin Technology appliance factory in nearby Guangzhou, demanding higher overtime pay and more days off, according to the government-run New China News Agency. The workers returned to the assembly line a day later after receiving assurances that overtime pay would rise by 12 cents to 36 cents an hour and that they would get two days off a month, the agency reported.
Chiang said the first of his company's two walkouts erupted in March over complaints about food in the company cafeteria and an error in the amount of wages docked for vacation time during the Chinese New Year. The second, which produced the violent rioting and injuries, occurred a month later, encouraged by local employment brokers who used to earn commissions for job placements but had been replaced by a company employment office, he said.
"I had my head in how to make beautiful shoes," he explained in an interview. "I wasn't paying enough attention to" the human resources department."
Police arrested 10 workers this summer after investigating the two strikes. Five were recently sentenced to jail terms, and the others await sentencing. Stella has offered to pay support to their families and announced that it backs efforts by their Beijing-based lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, to lodge an appeal.
In the trial of one worker, Chen Nanliu, Gao conceded that what happened at Stella's factories was "inappropriate." But he blamed the explosion on "clear and pressing social causes, namely the fact that our society today permits and encourages the most naked forms of social injustice."
In a provocative summation to the court, Gao compared the lot of Dongguan shoe workers to that of pre-communist Chinese laborers, who he said were victims of capitalist exploitation under the U.S.-backed Nationalist government until Mao Zedong's communists triumphed in 1949.
"What distinguishes the present situation, however, is that in those days the Communist Party stood alongside the workers in their fight against capitalist exploitation," he added, "whereas today the Communist Party is fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the coldblooded capitalists in their struggle against the workers."
At the factories, workers have circulated copies of Gao's statement for reading in the dormitory, according to Robin Munro, an activist at the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
Stella's management, meanwhile, has organized an "executive mailbox" where workers can drop written complaints. It started a magazine to air workers' views and fostered new workers' committees, which, according to Chiang, can meet with management to forward workers' concerns to the top.
"We would never have done this kind of thing a year ago," he said.
Ironically, Stella factories have earned a reputation among local workers as one of the better places to find a job. With landscaped grounds and well-maintained buildings where young men and women walk about with color-coded shirts that denote their tasks, Stella compounds in some ways resemble Chinese university campuses.
"Many workers want to find a job here," said Chen Hua, 27, an Anhui province native who lined up for an interview in front of a Stella plant. "The competition is keen."