Factory Stories: Preface to the Inland Workers issue

Factory Stories (Inland Workers, October 2015)


In this issue, we mainly look closely at inland provinces, i.e. [China’s] Midwest, but also to China’s relatively backward Northern coastal provinces where in the past few years the manufacturing industry has been developing at an increased pace. The majority of the workers in these provinces are locals, and among them are some workers with work experience in other regions, such as coastal industrial areas, who have returned to their hometowns for a range of reasons.

We will touch upon many different companies: old and new state enterprises; private enterprises who used all kinds of means to set up factories and strike gold; contract manufacturers who relocated inland from the industrial areas along the coast; and others. Whether it is about [different] types of enterprises, or [different] kinds of workers, while the content of the issue is far from comprehensive, it nonetheless includes a considerable amount of information.

We will see how in the wake of the reform process workers from state enterprises were divided, how their consciousness and perceptions of their actions, problems, and limits changed. Despite the fact that their status was reduced and they too were exploited, there are still obvious and important differences between the situation and attitude of state workers and of workers in private and foreign owned companies.

The majority of workers absorbed by the enterprises that moved their factories inland are locals, including many housewives who have entered the factory to work for the first time. Big factories like those of Foxconn have also hired scores of “student workers” from vocational schools. Along with the convergence of prices for daily necessities between different provinces and between cities and the countryside, the low wages in the inland factories have led to widespread discontent among those “new workers.” The working conditions are poor and in violation of the labor law, including the practice of not paying for workers’ social insurance which is even more severe than in coastal enterprises. All this would indicate an increase of labor-capital disputes in inland regions, but compared with the coastal areas there are so far not as many inland workers’ struggles. After facing privatization and a wave of redundancies at state enterprises, when workers lost their source of income and social protection, they were frequently compelled to stand up and defend their rights, often for many years. Similar to the coastal industrial districts, the strikes of workers in private enterprises have mostly been rather short. However, compared to workers in the coastal areas, the inland workers’ resistance has for the time being remained weaker.

China’s economy has seen many years in a row of boom and big development, as well as all kinds of capital moving inland. This has led to economic development inland and more employment opportunities. Some sections of skilled workers (including drivers) have been able to get relatively high wages, and there has been more space for setting up small businesses (but those have quickly been confronted with fierce competition and market saturation). In short, the inland economy and the workers situation are both developing within the same contradictions.

For the past few years, the state implemented a series of measures to improve social conditions, from canceling agricultural taxes to a new medical insurance for the villages, and the yearly increase of minimum wages. But how long can those “good days” last? We are at the end of the economic boom phase. Whether we look to China or any other country around the world, the economic crisis that started in 2008 has not really passed. The governments of all countries are constantly depriving workers of their rights and benefits in order to save the capitalists’ profits. The repression of workers’ struggles in the Pearl River Delta has also clearly increased over the past two years. Thus, it is necessary to pay closer attention to and analyze the growth of workers’ consciousness and the actions they take.

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