Monday, February 02, 2009

Labor unrest in China

Interesting (VERY interesting) piece in the Sunday Times (the Times of London, that is) regarding labor unrest in China.

For some time, my impression of China has been that of a huge, and rapidly expanding, middle class, a country on the upswing, a super-hot economy propelled, in large part, by a ridiculously undervalued currency, and a government set to do whatever it needed to maintain a huge trade surplus.

All these things may be true. But they don’t tell the whole story.

According to the Times, the low wages you would expect in China are a LOT lower than we thought, the dreadful working conditions are a LOT more dreadful, and the “worker’s paradise” is far more oppressive and far less secure than the central government would like for you to believe. And, with the slowdown in the world economy, even these awful measures are not enough to prevent huge job losses. The Chinese equivalent of our Holiday Season is just now wrapping up, and a significant number of migrant laborers are going to return to their workplaces to find they no longer have jobs.

This is leading to a great deal of worker unrest, and a great deal of unionization activity. The Chinese central government is no fan of labor unions – it’s the Worker’s Paradise, for God’s sake, why would anyone need a labor union? – and is clamping down on this activity. Hard.

No one is saying its civil war, or that civil war is looming. And no one is saying China is on the road to ruin. It’s just interesting, to me at least, that the Chinese are not immune to this stuff anymore than the West was a hundred years ago. This may very well be the Chinese century, but they are not omnipotent either.

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