There exists a BBC Documentary, provocatively entitled “The Town Taking on China”, depicting the plight of an English manufacturing boss as he faced ever-increasing labour costs in China. Given that the cost of Chinese labour is spiralling upwards, the boss was forced to consider relocating his Chinese factory to another factory in his native Merseyside.
Most would consider it excellent news that minimum wages in China are rising, that labour is more and more protected and that opportunistic foreigners can no longer exploit a feudal wage-labour agreement.
Yet, staying faithful to its anti-China bias, the BBC decided to make almost no mention of the murky moral questions surrounding a businessman’s success being built on the back of a typically oppressive Chinese factory and instead rattled on about how a small Northern town now forms the only tangible barrier between China and global domination. To its credit, the show did briefly detract from this line of reasoning to depict, albeit in an entirely neutral tone, the sparse living conditions of the average Chinese labourer, and the familial and geographic sacrifices they had undertaken.
Yet there was an overwhelming sense throughout that the day-to-day existence of such people was more or less forgotten in the face of grand, idealistic and global movements; the hard line capitalist outlook that labourers represent nothing more than the sum of their labour was eerily omnipresent.
For the BBC, the human side came in at the Merseyside end, where jobs were created in abundance and people’s struggles with the frankly brutal realities of a day-to-day manufacturing job were highlighted.
The Chinese labourers were half-forgotten, and when remembered, portrayed as sufficiently stoical to deal with any adversity.
The imbalance became clearer and clearer: where a Merseyside-teen squealed with agony over breaking her fourth nail that week, a Chinese mother-of-two quietly and uncomplainingly admitted she would have to wait months to save enough money to see her own children.
The threat of Chinese labour becoming too expensive to justify foreign investment is a new twist in international relations. On the other hand, the narrative encompassing the individual Chinese characters as little more than worker-ants is a familiar story, facilitated by a historically appalling attitude to labour rights in China.
Chinese labour is now one of the world’s central clichés. When the graffiti artist Banksy designed an opening segment on the Simpson’s, the viewer collapses through the couch into an underground lair where Chinese labourers, all of them malnourished and miserable, are forced to mindlessly manufacture Simpson’s memorabilia. Such portrayals scarcely exaggerate the average impression of the realities of labour in China, and foster the widely-held belief that such conditions are unquestioningly accepted by a workforce weighed down by a deferential, Confucian heritage.
The stereotype of the Chinese labourer as uncomplaining - as having witnessed such immense political upheaval, war, and famine that a little overtime and very little pay are not really problems at all – is surely constructed in part to justify an oppressive capitalistic model. The reality is that a mere history involving a number of bad things has little effect on the need for basic labour rights. People don’t actually turn around and say, “Yes, this factory is terrible, but at least I’m not in the middle of the Great Leap Forward”, and then happily return to the construction of their 10,000th iPhone that week.
In fact, Chinese labourers do complain. Changes in labour costs in China in recent years have largely been driven by the growing frequency of unreported strikes. Concessions made in terms of wages have generally been required to pacify an increasingly frustrated workforce. New labour laws introduced in 2008 require employers to pay overtime, provide insurance and give sacked workers one month of severance pay for every year worked. Such changes sound promising, but are often undermined by an inconsistent reality.
The absence of labour-based trade unions is the central issue here.
In many cases labourers are not even aware of their own rights, especially those migrant workers from the west of China who often lack a basic education. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is quite simply not a trade union in the traditional sense; leaders are appointed by the government and rarely speak in the interests of a labour force to whom they have at most a peripheral connection. Independent trade unions are forbidden. Workers now realise the importance of this; at a strike at a Honda plant in 2010, one of the workers’ demands was for the right to start their own, independent union.
Just as Thatcher and Reagan neutered their own trade unions through a deregulated, laissez-faire capitalism of the most liberal variety, so 21st Century China, profoundly and delicately regulated at every corner, similarly finds no place for labour-based power.
Absence of representation at the governmental level notwithstanding, a wave of strikes in 2010 exerted considerable pressure on both companies and legislative powers. The Foxconn suicides represented the most talked-about of labour-led disturbances, not least because of the moral outrage people felt when hearing of people living in custom-built factory-cities. Journalist John Lanchester recently noted the irony that, in socialist China, such environments represent what Marx himself would have imagined as the perfect examples of the proletariat existence, where the labourer is maintained purely and entirely for the profitability of his sole possession: his labour. Yet environments such as these are fuelling increasingly furious resistance.
The pressure exerted by such events has reaped rewards. This year, minimum wages rose enormously. In Sichuan, for example, the minimum wage increased 23% on the 1st January of this year. By September, minimum wages will have risen by an average of 22%. Yet they are still low; the highest monthly minimum wage, in Shenzhen, is only 1320 RMB. A government reports anticipates a minimum-wage growth of 13% a year over the next five years. In percentage terms this is strong growth, but 13% of a small number is a much smaller number; percentages only work in relation to the existing figure.
For the government, the conflict here is ultimately between a need to pacify an increasingly restless and frustrated workforce with a need to continue to incentivize foreign investment. As a slump in foreign investment would spell even greater disaster for those labourers currently working for a pittance, the government’s dilemma is very difficult to solve. Yet the prospect of a collapse is perhaps less likely than expected, even if minimum wages are hiked up and labour costs double or triple.
FT journalist Richard McGregor, in the aftermath of the 2010 strikes, admitted that he thought mass-relocation to Vietnam or other labour-cheap nations was highly unlikely given the costs in movement, the way in which China’s logistical infrastructure is now so well-suited to manufacturing companies, and the inevitable inferiority of a Vietnam or a Cambodia in this respect. That said, manufacturing may simply return to its previous home. Vice-President Xi Jinping met Obama this year. Manufacturing and labour costs were evidently discussed; the day afterwards, Obama was in Milwaukee making a speech implying that American manufacturing was returning to the US.
One of the biggest issues for Chinese labour and manufacturing today is the migrant-worker problem.
Each year, at Spring Festival, around 100 million workers return home and many fail to come back. This problem is caused by farmers who must leave behind their families to raise money for their children’s educations. Migrant workers have largely made China’s dominance of global manufacturing possible. The lowest trough in American economic history – the Great Depression – is immortalized by the image of the migrant worker, a kind of Grapes of Wrath scene in which ruined families bleakly sit by the roadside.
The image of the migrant worker in the US is an undeniably tragic image. In China, migrant workers have driven growth and have often been associated, in general discourse, with progress and development. Yet now, the same kind of negativity seen in depression-era photographs is increasingly associated with the Chinese counterpart. Again, the differing attitudes to migrant-workers in the US and China boil down to the very issue unwittingly raised by the BBC documentary, in which it is far too easy to forget the human-status of the Chinese labourer, or at least to undermine it in comparison to labourers in the West, because of the stereotype that misfortune is somehow easier to bear for the Chinese. The sooner this stereotype is exposed for the nonsense it is, the more seriously the voice of Chinese labour will be taken.
In a pivotal scene in the BBC documentary, the boss discusses wage rises with a member of staff. She demands a 50% rise. He looks flustered and stressed, and politely states this is impossible. She responds that she will happily go elsewhere if he does not meet her demand. The meeting ends with her walking out the door.
The viewer is almost encouraged to sympathise with this poor, bedraggled, millionaire-boss and to see the labourer as the vehicle of greed. Such a sentiment would, obviously, be profoundly mistaken; the labourer herself is likely to be a figure separated from her family, sacrificing her own day-to-day life in order to provide some small financial contribution to the opportunities of her children.
Yet the misplaced, implied greed is a small price to pay for the invaluable representation of a Chinese labourer as having some degree of autonomy and power over the might of a foreign investor, who finds himself increasingly helpless in a land where he can no longer profit from the financial and political poverty of his labourers.