Recent labor strikes in communist China expose more than just poor working conditions in factories, as workers steer clear of their government representatives to demand more money and more workplace democracy.
Strikes at the foreign-owned Honda and Toyota factories have overshadowed hundreds of strikes at domestic plants that have rocked the nation — such as in Pingdingshan, Henan, where workers are demanding higher wages for their work.
"This is the accumulation of pent-up demands and dissatisfaction," said Geoffrey Crothall, director of communications at the China Labor Bulletin, which promotes workers' rights.
With China's increasing inflation, he said, living on customary low pay has become impossible for workers.
How the workers are protesting, however, has been particularly interesting to observers: rather than going through their All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) branch, they are organizing themselves independently.
"Workers don't trust [the ACFTU], and don't even know who's representing them," Mr. Crothall said. In order to get their message across, workers are "bypassing the official union" and coordinating through social media and cell phones, he said.
The ACFTU is China's sole trade union, regulated by the Beijing government and representing 170 million workers in almost 3 million enterprises and institutions. Its leaders are hand-picked government appointees, and it's illegal to start a separate union.
Most of the time, the local trade unions side with the local government or corporation. According to China Labor Bulletin's founder and director Han Dongfang, the ACFTU demonstrated such loyalty this month, when they beat strikers at the Honda factory to get them back to work, hospitalizing at least two.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong had no immediate comment on the developments.
However, the workers' organization is a far cry from wanting to oust the ACFTU altogether, Mr. Han said. According to Mr. Han, who regularly interviews Chinese workers on Radio Free Asia, the workers have no such ambitions.
"There is just no existing channel for them to voice their grievances," he said. Instead, they are only doing what they have to in order to put their message out, he said.
Mr. Crothall said the strikes provide a wake-up call for the Chinese government that their union is "next to useless." Some workers have even begun to demand workplace democracy so they can vote their own representatives into the ACFTU.
Carolyn Bartholomew, vice chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the "raised expectations" of Chinese workers is contributing to these developments. "They have seen a world of increased opportunity and wealth, and see that they can make demands."
In some cases, workers have been getting their demands. Honda agreed to raise worker's wages 24 percent, and the Taiwanese-owned electronics company Foxconn gave its workers a raise of 66 percent, even without strikes.
Yet Ms. Bartholomew said she is skeptical of the movement's long-term success.
"The biggest threat the government sees is something organizing against them," she said, mentioning the Falun Gong religious sect as an example of such organization.
"It just depends on how much the government will take before it cracks down," she said.
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