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September 21, 2017

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Workers are finding their voice to fight for rights in China

SHAJING-- In many ways, Lan Yimin represents the new generation of Chinese factory workers.

She wants fair working conditions. Time off to socialize. And a job that pays enough so she can open a milk tea business one day.

Lan, 22, is one of millions of migrant workers powering the electronics, furniture and toy factories in China's Pearl River Delta. While she's following in her parents' footsteps on the assembly line, unlike them, she's less willing to "eat bitterness" — as the Chinese call it — and toil away for meager pay and benefits. She has more job options and better access to information. And as China's economy booms, her generation is becoming bolder.

"The young generation has a wider social circle; we talk more about factory conditions and we know more about our legal rights," Lan says at a workers' center in the industrial town of Shajing, where she attends seminars on handling late wages and contract termination.

Workers' growing awareness and their willingness to take action are slowly pushing up wages and improving conditions in the manufacturing industry. The Chinese government already moved to increase salaries and labor standards a few years ago. Now it is trying to maintain a delicate balance of improving income levels for workers while not scaring away foreign corporations with higher labor costs.

As wages and other costs rise here, U.S. companies will have to decide whether to take their production to other Asian manufacturing hubs or increase prices for American consumers.

This year, strikes at Honda factories and a spate of suicides at Foxconn — a maker of electronics for U.S. companies such as Apple and Dell — raised alarm among corporations and the government that the era of the docile worker had ended. Strikes still happen each week in China, labor rights groups say, but the government doesn't allow them to be reported. The labor unrest is even inspiring strikes in Cambodia and Vietnam, whose workers say they're emboldened by their Chinese colleagues' examples.

For now, factory workers in China "are only making economic demands, not political," says Chang Kai, a labor relations expert at People's University in Beijing who has assisted workers with strike negotiations.

In China, "If the government does not treat the workers' struggle for collective bargaining seriously, if it decides to treat these demands as political, then this will turn into a political struggle," says Han Dongfang, a labor activist deported to Hong Kong for his role in the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.

To a certain extent, the Chinese government is tolerating worker unrest because it recognizes that higher wages translate into more spending that can stimulate the economy. The government wants all residents to share in the country's economic growth, says Juzhong Zhuang, deputy chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, because "high income inequality can lead to social problems that undermine long-term economic growth."

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