03/04/2011 04:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gadget Factories Charge Up China's Labor Activism

The trajectory of China's breakneck economic growth over the past three decades is a case study in how globalization allows cutting-edge technology to exist alongside primitive labor conditions. In fact, the gap between the pathways of human versus commercial development might be growing wider, according to new research.

The downside of development

According to China Labor Watch's survey of dozens of Chinese factories, which produce toys, shoes, electronics and other goods, alarming patterns worker exploitation counter the mainstream rhetoric that unlimited growth yields boundless prosperity:

A) The ability for workers to organize and express their grievances is extremely limited and poses a serious problem. In 88.2% of the surveyed factories, there was no functional or effective trade union or grievance mechanism system.

B) In 87% of the factories, daily overtime work exceeded three hours or there was no guarantee of one day of rest each week. Not one factory met the legal requirements for overtime monthly maximum of 36 hours. In the surveyed factories, overtime hours in excess of 100 hours was the norm, and some were even in excess of 200 hours.

C) 82.6% of the factories surveyed do not pay wages in accordance with Chinese labor laws, with regards to minimum wage and/or overtime rates. As workers have no means of engaging in collective bargaining, there is little hope of wages increases.

Other problems documented in the survey include substandard dormitories, inadequate social insurance provisions and weak protections against child labor.

Another recent survey by China's official union federation shows that the massive population of young migrant workers still earns only about half the income of their urban counterparts.

Among the most egregious violations reported recently come out of Foxconn. The Taiwan-owned Shenzhen-based electronics firm gained notoriety last year for a spate of employee suicides, which critics attributed to a hyper-oppressive management system and alienating Panopticon-like living conditions.

The advocacy campaign makeITfair just published a separate report on China's high-end electronics industry in Guangdong Province, which reveals similarly oppressive conditions in the factories that churn out game consoles and music players for major brands like Apple and Sony. A survey of several suppliers, including one affiliate of Foxconn, uncovered shady practices such as extremely long day and night shifts and unfair deals between employers and intermediary labor agencies.

Apple's squeaky-clean image was just marred by an internal report showing the use of child labor at its supplier's factories, chemical exposures in the workplace and poor compliance with labor rules.

China Labor Watch predicts that Chinese-style capitalism may hit a crisis point as labor conflict heats up:

The conflict between the push down of company costs and rise of worker consciousness, we anticipate, will lead to a more entrenched labor movement, through which workers will seek empowerment vis-a-vis safeguarding of their legal rights. With growing tensions in this conflict of interest, CLW believes that workers’ rights empowerment and systemic change will only come about when there are functional and effective trade unions in factories with democratically elected leaders.

It seems doubtful that China's state-run union structure—and its authoritarian government—would tolerate truly independent worker-led organizations, at least at this stage. But trade unions could be a cautious stepping stone toward some form of participatory democracy, channeling economic unrest toward employers rather than the government. If there was a political consciousness animating last year's strikes, it was a sense of workers' position as the most exploited link in the global production chain....

Read the rest, cross-posted at In These Times