The rising power of the Chinese worker

Cheap labour has built China's economic miracle. Its manufacturing workers toil for a small fraction of the cost of their American or German competitors. At the bottom of the heap, a "floating population" of about 130m migrants work in China's boomtowns, taking home 1,348 yuan a month on average last year. That is a mere $197, little more than one-twentieth of the average monthly wage in America. But it is 17 per cent more than the year before. As China's economy has bounced back, wages have followed suit. On the coasts, where its exporting factories are clustered, bosses are short of workers, and workers short of patience. A spate of strikes has thrown a spanner into the workshop of the world.

The hands of China's workers have been strengthened by a new labour law, introduced in 2008, and by the more fundamental laws of demand and supply. Workers are becoming harder to find and to keep. The country's villages still contain perhaps 70m potential migrants. Other rural folk might be willing to work closer to home in the growing number of factories moving inland. But the supply of strong backs and nimble fingers is not infinite, even in China. The number of 15- to 29-year-olds will fall sharply from next year. And although their wages are increasing, their aspirations are rising even faster. They seem less willing to "eat bitterness", as the Chinese put it, without complaint.

Why the goons were called off

In truth, Chinese workers were never as docile as the popular caricature suggested. But the recent strikes have been unusual in their frequency (Guangdong province on China's south coast suffered at least 36 strikes in the space of 48 days), their longevity and their targets: foreign multinationals.

China's ruling Communist Party has swiftly quashed previous bouts of labour unrest. This one drew a more relaxed reaction. Goons from the government-controlled trade union roughed up some Honda strikers, but they were quickly called off. The strikes were widely, if briefly, covered in the state-supervised press. And the ringleaders have not so far heard any midnight knocks at the door.

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