China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher
11 May 2013
SITTING around a restaurant table, six workers discuss the progress of their labour action. Five of them are women, as are most of their several hundred colleagues who have been occupying the toy factory since mid-April. They have been sleeping on floors, braving rats and mosquitoes, to stop the owner shutting down the factory without giving them fair compensation. Those at the table are all migrants from the countryside. A couple are tearful. All are angry and determined not to give way.
In Guangdong province, where nearly 30% of China’s exports are made, women usually far outnumber men on labour-intensive production lines such as those at the toy factory in the city of Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong. Rural women are hired for their supposed docility, nimble fingers and attention to mind-numbing detail.
But in recent years Guangdong’s workforce has changed. The supply of cheap unskilled labour, once seemingly limitless, has started to dry up. Factory bosses are now all but begging their female workers to remain. At the same time the women who have migrated to the factory towns have become better-educated and more aware of their rights. In labour-intensive factories, stereotypes of female passivity are beginning to break down.
Over the past three decades the migration of tens of millions of women from the countryside to factories in Guangdong and other coastal provinces has helped to transform the worldview of an especially downtrodden sector of Chinese society (the suicide rate among rural women is far higher than for rural men). Conditions in the factories have often been harsh—poor safety, illegally long working hours, cramped accommodation, few breaks and little leave—but for many it has also been liberating and empowering, both personally and financially. Leslie Chang, an American journalist, spent three years reporting on women workers in Dongguan, a city near Shenzhen. In her 2008 book “Factory Girls” Ms Chang wrote that, compared with men, the women she encountered were “more motivated to improve themselves and more likely to value migration for its life-changing possibilities.”
They are still not as well-educated as men (about a year less in school on average, with most having only primary- or junior secondary-school education). But the gap has been narrowing.
Crucially, China’s changing demography has been shifting in their favour. Labour shortages that began to hit low-skilled manufacturing in the second half of the past decade have driven up wages and forced factories to improve working conditions. Once all but unthinkable (for both sexes), strikes have become increasingly common. Anecdotally at least, women appear as likely to take part as men.
Strikes in 2010 affecting factories in Guangdong owned by Honda, a Japanese car firm, helped to galvanise labour activism. One of them occurred in the city of Zhongshan, where the workers were mostly female. The unrest there resulted in pay concessions and set a precedent for collective bargaining led by representatives chosen by the workers themselves, rather than government-controlled trade unions. At the Shenzhen toy factory, the workers have chosen five representatives to negotiate with management. Three of them are women. A male worker says the women are more aware of their rights.
China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO, reported on March 19th that about a fifth of strikes in Guangdong since the beginning of the year had been in factories and other workplaces with largely female staff. It said that women were also “some of the most active workers posting information online about strikes and protests, and in seeking out legal assistance for problems at work.” The protesting toy-workers offer evidence of this. They have posted photographs on microblogs of protesting female workers clad in red jackets opposite lines of police. One of their slogans reads: “Bad boss—give us back our youth”.
Wiggle room for NGOs
Guangdong is a little more forgiving of protest than many other parts of the country, but still not that tolerant. In July the authorities relaxed controls on the registration of NGOs. But those involved in labour issues rarely get official approval, apparently because of fears that they might help organise strikes. Only a handful of such groups in the province is openly engaged in work to help the female labour force. The leader of one, who asked that she and her organisation not be named, is herself a former migrant worker. She and a few dozen volunteers (mostly women from factories) give advice on collective bargaining. They recently helped some 60 female workers at a jewellery factory secure better severance pay. Negotiations took just a week. She says it would have been “very difficult” to achieve that through government channels.
In the coming years Guangdong’s industrial transformation is likely to even out the sex ratio in some cities where it has been skewed towards women. In the township where the NGO works, there are about 30,000 female workers and few men. But the group’s leader says this is changing fast as labour-intensive manufacturing moves out and gives way to an emerging logistics hub. Dongguan, a city once highly unusual in China for having many more women than men, had a male majority by 2010.
So desperate have some factories become for cheap labour that they are allowing men to work on production lines once exclusively reserved for women. But this does not mean China’s factory women are giving up and going home. The toy workers, many of them in their 30s or 40s, who have been working at the factory since it opened some 20 years ago, are typical of their generation of migrants. They have become urban and their children know nothing else. “We can’t plant fields now”, says one. No, agrees another, “We can’t go back”.