Labor Protests in China

To understand allegations of labor exploitation by Chinese companies and firms in African countries, we must look to literature and cases of workers treatment in mainland China. Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, whom I met and befriended in Zambia, exposes the “underbelly” of China’s prodigious growth and makes the compelling argument that growing labor unrest in the past 15 years can be attributed to the commodification of labor, which in the Chinese context encompasses strategies of “decentralized accumulation” and “legal authoritarianism.” The inherent tension in these strategies rests in conflicting demands upon local governments to grow local economies while simultaneously carry out labor laws set forth by the central government.

In her fieldwork, Lee discovered differences between rustbelt workers’ protests in the northeast province of Liaoning and sunbelt workers’ protests in Guangdong. Lee argues that these differences are “shaped by the diverse modes of state regulation of labor and systems of social provision outside of waged work.” Their similarity resides in the outrage they experienced in dealing with the commodification process. Their sense of justice and humanity, what Lee calls the “moral and emotive dimensions” is especially salient in provoking them to protest and make demands based on workers’ legal rights.

These same demands were made in the United States decades before the growth of heavy industrial companies in China. Lee astutely observes shared experiences by her informants and those in the American coal and mining industries in Pennsylvania and Appalachia. She cites Eve Weinbaum’s work , which points to the affective consequences of “flexible accumulation of capital” as companies closed down, laid off workers and relocated to other countries in search of cheaper labor. One worker’ comment was particularly striking: “When I got laid off, I got depressed, moody….Then you get bitter. It really was very hard….I had a hard time adjusting. I got so depressed that I couldn’t even clean my house; I didn’t go no place; I didn’t even do anything” (Lee 243). Workers in both studies expressed a sense of betrayal by the rich and powerful who had reneged on their commitment to ordinary workers dedicated to making their countries strong. Workers alluded to the reprehensibility of the government in aiding major corporations commit crimes and engage in corruption while allowing them to shut down plants, factories and leave behind the communities and people in which they were once invested. Similar sentiments of brutality of treatment by employers were shown in studies of workers in Korea, “By the time they left the factory, their youth had long gone, leaving behind prematurely aged bodies with many nagging diseases acquired from factory work. As workers often lamented, ‘when all the oil is squeezed out of our bodies, we are thrown out just like trash” (Hagen Koo, Ching Kwan Lee 254).

Although both American and Chinese workers lack bargaining power and reduced associational power as unions are forced to make concessions that are not in the best interest of workers, one difference Lee maintains is that American workers have greater community associational power. Community resources, church-based organizations, civic groups and labor activists have played a critical role in helping workers deal with the depression of losing a job and facilitate in the creation of new bonds outside the workplace. Lee also points to “successful failures” as a locus for change, indicated in Weinbaum’s study of ex-GE workers’ who campaigned locally and then protested against the WTO in Seattle.Their protests planted the seed of inspiring other movements, training people with the skills conducive to activism, and establishing support systems that pave the way for future counter-hegemonic movements (Lee 249). In China, although alliances have formed between the peasantry, working class and property-owning middle class — one property owner statements after his family home had been demolished is particularly telling, “Ironically, I cannot even protect our own family home. We are so oppressed.” — the central and local governments adopt a highly repressive attitude towards collective rebellions, thus encouraging workers to seek individual economic strategies to escape control. Lee concludes by stating that the likelihood of rustbelt and sunbelt workers to collectively protest will depend on three factors “1) competition among political elites, trade unions 2) skills leverage over integrated production; or 3) community-based associations or social movement allies.”

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