The world’s largest annual human migration has disturbing political connotations this year, at least for China’s ruling Communist party. Millions of migrants from the country’s vast rural hinterland are being laid off and will likely remain jobless after the imminent “spring rush” of the Chinese lunar New Year.
“Jobs in the export sector provide an important safety net for the country’s rural labourers; their factory earnings cushion poor agricultural communities in interior provinces,” notes a report in today’s Financial Times. “The last thing the authorities need is tens of millions of restive, underemployed factory workers with only subsistence farming on which to fall back.”
Government officials are concerned that unemployment among migrant workers could foment unrest and instability, fraying the social contract underpinning the regime during a year of sensitive political anniversaries – the ruling Communist party marks 60 years in power, while dissidents and democrats will highlight the 90th anniversary of the 4th May protest movement and the 4th June 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
After a largely triumphal year for the ‘Chinese model’, the ruling communist elite faces more anxious times. ”What is going to happen when more and more factories close? Chinese workers have learnt that collective [protest] action is effective,” asks Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University.
The authorities are trying to pre-empt labor unrest by reining in the official All China Federation of Trade Unions which has recently been showing signs of asserting its autonomy, organizing more firms and negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Western companies. But some fear that stifling independent labor organization will remove a channel for peacefully articulating demands, leaving discontented workers with no options but direct, possibly violent, action.
“ACFTU just stopped all bargaining to make sure the companies can make it through these difficulties,” says Han Dongfang, director of the China Labour Bulletin, quoted in the FT report. “The financial crisis should be an opportunity for government and union officials to be more aggressive in terms of addressing problems at factories. Then there would be fewer street actions and conflicts could be avoided,” says Han, an independent union activist imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.