Several thousand rioting workers in Foxconn’s Taiyuan factory this week highlighted the inherent limits on China’s emerging middle class. Questions about the causes of the violence continue to circulate, either a dispute sparked by a security guard beating a worker or a fight in one of the privately contracted dormitories that went awry. (Jennifer Preston of the New York Times’ “The Lede” summarizes the blogosphere’s accounts versus official government pronouncements here.) In either case the life of your average manufacturing worker revolves around 10-12 hour days, sleeping in dormitories and eating in massive cafeterias. Room and board are deducted from their pay, when they’re paid on time and accurately.
With some 79,000 workers at this particular plant Foxconn runs the equivalent of a small-sized U.S. town. Workers often self-segregate based on their hometowns or provinces giving rise to rivalries and sometimes conflict. But why hasn’t the sheer size of this workforce spawned a private housing boom, new neighborhoods, and the freedom to congregate and eat where one pleases?
Back in the 1950’s and ’60’s U.S. factory workers fueled a booming middle class. Many were young (in their 20‘s). After several years they got married, bought homes, cars and appliances. Restaurants, hair salons, bowling alleys and movie theaters sprang up nearby. For most of Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea which used to assemble similar goods, the story was much the same. Workers salaries rose to the point were they could afford mortgages and banks were eager to lend to workers with stable incomes. Public infrastructure connected new communities to the factory gates. Their children spurred a rise in school construction. Personal and corporate income taxes fueled public infrastructure projects.
The factory model in China, however remains largely stuck in an almost feudalistic past where the company provides, or more accurately controls, what workers can and can’t do, even in their off time. The hukou or residency permit system restricts workers from buying apartments near where they work unless they are already a resident (most are not). Their children can’t attend local schools so many must be left behind in villages with grandparents (see Alexandra Harney’s “The China Price” for the affects of low cost manufacturing on workers.) The state-controlled union can operate, but it mostly supports the interests of the government rather than the workers they’re meant to represent.
The basis for this manufacturing system isn’t strictly a socialist ethos or “manufacturing with Chinese characteristics”. Early industrial U.S. company towns often ran the local store (charging ridiculously high prices) and provided housing (at a cost). When workers tried to organize they brought in local thugs or police to impose force. Those days are long gone primarily because workers could and did organize for better pay, regular hours, and safety. Present day working life in China remains more a matter of control than culture. While the Foxconn riots weren’t directed at management worker’s inability to organize can lead to explosions of pent up anger elsewhere.
Labor advocating for its interests and securing freedom of choice in where to live, eat, and enjoy their spare time forms one of the most basic tenants of middle class growth. Reasonable hours and significantly higher overtime pay increases personal income and domestic consumption. Company co-sponsored health insurance plans lowers the need to pile away current savings for future medical needs. Rising wages for middle class workers increases social stability. While incomes have been going up some 10% for Chinese workers the income gap is widening and basic healthcare and housing remain out of reach for many.)
Without structural changes China’s economic transition from state and investment-led growth to consumer-driven demand will remain stunted. When tens of thousands of employees stuffed into cramped dormitories and shuffled like cattle through stadium-sized cafeterias finally gain more economic freedom, China’s middle class will flourish. Until then pent up frustrations that erupted in the Foxconn riots suggest more turbulent times ahead.
Photo: Youtube video.