A new kind of protest

In a country where strikes are illegal, a new Chinese labour movement is finding its voice

"The first time we went on strike the boss was very wily. He kept the lights on in the factory to make us think other people were still at work. The second time we were smarter," grins Luo Chun Li. "When it was time to start work, we just sat there and did nothing."

A migrant worker from Hunan Province, Luo Chun Li is a strike veteran at the age of 26 in a country where strikes are illegal. When I meet her, she is shepherding a group of women through the door of a Shenzhen migrant workers' centre, stuffing leaflets into their handbags to distribute at hospital casualty units. She eyes the street warily: the centre has been trashed twice in six months by men with iron bars. In the back, weary workers are killing a rainy Saturday afternoon leafing through novellas from the centre's penny library.

This is what the new Chinese labour movement looks like: lacking money, security and post-school education, these young, female volunteers are part of a huge change in the country's workforce. To anybody who witnessed worker militancy in Britain in the 1970s, all this will be familiar. There's a labour shortage; wages are rising; factories are closing because of rising costs; there are overtime disputes, unpaid wage disputes, and above all strikes: at least one per day involves a thousand workers, according to official figures.

Last November's strike at the Alco electronics factory in the southern province of Guangdong, sparked by rising food prices, was typical. With food inflation at 23 per cent, the management wanted to double the amount taken from wages for the three meals a day the workers eat in the canteen.

What happened next is documented in a collection of digital photographs shot by the strikers. They streamed into the avenue outside the plant and blocked it. It was peaceful until the riot police arrived, some in blue, some in camouflage, many with Alsatian dogs. The photos tell the story of baton charges and arrests, though they survived for only a few hours on the Chinese internet.

When I arrived at Alco to find out what had become of the strikers, there were police on every corner - and this was early Sunday morning. Speaking to them in public as a western journalist was out of the question; my Chinese researcher quizzed a few of them down back alleys as they came and went. I learned how the strike had been resolved: management backed down and the workers returned. In other words, they won.

This is the new pattern of Chinese labour disputes. They are spontaneous and solid. The strikers block the streets. The police move in, but so do Communist officials. In 2006 President Hu Jintao ordered them to stop treating all strikes as a threat to social order and to mediate instead of cracking down.

Decoupling industrial relations from the wider issues of political legitimacy and protest in China means the workers' movement, for now, is not going to be a driver for political democracy. But it has left the official workers' institutions looking antiquated.

Party leaders ordered the state-run trade union federation to start organising among this non-core workforce. Then, after much consultation, they passed the Contract Labour Law, which came into force on 1 January 2008.

The results have been spectacular. According to the local chamber of commerce, roughly 10,000 small factories have closed in the space of three months. It wasn't just that their owners didn't like the idea of collective consultation; they disliked the idea of the workers having the right to redundancy pay if laid off after long service.

Others have simply tried to get around the rules. A couple called the Cuis wander into the migrant workers' centre perplexed: in their late thirties and from Sichuan, they have worked in the same factory for nine years. Now managers at the Shin Dar electronics company, which makes headsets for LG, have requested all the long-service workers like the Cuis to "retire".

A generational change is happening, says Huang Qingnan, who founded the migrant centre in 2003 with money awarded to him after a factory fire burned off most of his face. Late last year he was hospitalised again, after his attempts to help a worker collect back pay led to a knife attack that nearly killed him.

"We've seen a big change of attitude. Workers like me, in their thirties and forties, would come straight off the farm. If they were ripped off they'd keep their mouths shut. But the generation of migrants born in the 1980s are different. They saw others coming home well dressed, looking better off. They thought that as a factory worker you make loads of money. When they find out the reality they will not put up with it. They quit the sweatshops and move to Shanghai."

This month, as migrant workers began to return to the factory districts after their annual New Year holiday, it became clear they were voting with their feet. The Guangdong Province labour ministry confirmed what bosses already knew: around one in ten migrants has not returned after the spring break, and for every seven jobs at local hiring fairs, there are just four workers.

Like all labour activists in China, Huang knows how violent and irrational strikes can become. He generally tries to head them off. But, he warns, "There is no law that says you have to go to work." The Chinese working class has moved about as far as the UK factory workforce moved in the 20 years between the banning of trade unions in 1799 and the Peterloo demonstration of 1819.

And although they have no inkling of this parallel, the words of the man who immortalised that time in poetry are present, crossing centuries and continents. As I leave, Luo hands me a copy of the centre's bulletin. She points to the headline and translates. It is a line from Shelley, reduced to its essence in Mandarin: "After cold winter, spring certainly comes."

"The Workforce That Changed the World", broadcast 7 March on BBC2's Newsnight, is also available on the BBC iPlayer

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?