We’ll never know the names of all the people who paid with their limbs, their lungs, or their lives for the goodies in my home and yours. Here’s just one: think of him as the Unknown Worker, standing for them all. Liu Pan was a 17-year-old operating a machine that made cards and cardboard that were sold on to big-name Western corporations. When he tried to clear its jammed machinery, he got pulled into it. His sister said: “When we got his body, his whole head was crushed. We couldn’t even see his eyes.”
So you might be thinking – was it a cruel joke to bill this as a good news story? Not at all. An epic rebellion has now begun in China against this abuse – and it is beginning to succeed. Across 126,000 Chinese factories, workers have refused to live like this any more. Wildcat unions have sprung up, organised by text message, demanding higher wages, a humane work environment, and the right to organise freely. Millions of young workers across the country are blockading their factories and chanting, “There are no human rights here!” and, “We want freedom!” The suicides were a rebellion of despair; this is a rebellion of hope.
Last year, the Chinese dictatorship was so panicked by the widespread uprisings that it prepared an extraordinary step forward. It drafted a new labour law that would allow workers to form and elect their own trade unions. It would plant seeds of democracy across China’s workplaces. Western corporations lobbied very hard against it, saying it would create a “negative investment environment” – by which they mean smaller profits. Western governments obediently backed the corporations and opposed freedom and democracy for Chinese workers. So the law was whittled down and democracy stripped out.
It wasn’t enough. This year Chinese workers have risen even harder to demand a fair share of the prosperity they create. Now company after company is making massive concessions: pay rises of over 60 per cent are being conceded. Even more crucially, officials in Guandong province, the manufacturing heartland of the country, have announced that they are seriously considering allowing workers to elect their own representatives to carry out collective bargaining after all.
Just like last time, Western corporations and governments are lobbying frantically against this – and to keep the millions of Yan Lis stuck at their assembly lines into the 35th hour.
This isn’t a distant struggle: you are at its heart, whether you like it or not. There is an electrical extension cord running from your laptop and mobile and games console to the people like Yan Li and Liu Pan dying to make them. So you have to make a choice. You can passively let the corporations and governments speak for you in trying to beat these people back into semi-servitude – or you can side with the organisations here that support their cry for freedom, like No Sweat, or the TUC’s international wing, by donating to them, or volunteering for their campaigns.
Yes, if this struggle succeeds, it will mean that we will have to pay a little more for some products, in exchange for the freedom and the lives of people like Yan Li and Liu Pan. But previous generations have made that choice. After slavery was abolished in 1833, Britain’s GDP fell by 10 percent – but they knew that cheap goods and fat profits made from flogging people until they broke were not worth having. Do we?
The U.S. can’t lecture China about human rights while helping corporations suppress workers rights. Capice?