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Pointing the finger at strikes in China and in Britain

The Prime Minister of China has just been on the television news (more on the story here) telling “Britain” (by which he seems to mean the British government) not to indulge in “finger pointing” about China’s human rights record. He loves Shakespeare, he said. Do any of China’s critics know anything about Chinese literature?

It’s an interesting idea, that you need to acquire a love of Chinese literature before you can reasonably complain about circumstances like this (just lately linked to by Instapundit):

… Workers complained they were forced to stand during 12-hour shifts with only two toilet breaks, forbidden to drink water while on the job.

They also charged that the factory, operated by Simone Ltd., was feeding them blackened rice and other substandard food, for which deductions were made from their wages. “The Korean management treats us less than human beings,” said one worker. “The male managers walk into female toilets any time they please; we can’t contain our anger any more.” …

But it is not enough of an explanation of such events to say that the people of Guangdong don’t like being horribly treated. My question is: how come they now feel able to be so angry? I mean, it’s not like they have never been maltreated before.


Long-term social trends and the problems of authoritarian rule explain much of the restiveness, but there is another principal reason.   Employees these days have much more bargaining power.   Back at the Simone factory in Panyu, management said it would fire those who did not return to work.   That threat used to be effective, but not now.

Why not?   For several years, Guangdong has been short of help.   Some residents have become relatively well-off and no longer need mind-dulling employment in factories, something evident in Shenzhen, the booming city bordering even-more-prosperous Hong Kong.

It sounds as if finger pointing by the likes of David Cameron won’t be necessary to make China’s bosses, political and economic, start to become a tiny bit nicer, year on year. Supply and demand, of and for labour, is now working that trick.

The Forbes piece, with its headline about “Conflict handbags”, implies that soon there may be calls for boycotts of handbags made in China. But is it not the willingness of richer people to buy such stuff that is bidding up the price of labour in China, and making such things as the denial of toilet breaks so unsustainable?

Meanwhile, where is the voracious demand for the services of Britain’s public sector workers, who are also threatening strike inaction? The government is going to stop! State teachers will stop teaching! Here is a case where a strike is being triggered by a fall in demand for the relevant labour. The paymaster is feeling the pinch, and wants to cut their pensions. I wonder what the Prime Minister of China thinks about that? Seriously, I would like to know this. Even better, I would like to see him doing some finger pointing. That would be a real laugh.

I don’t know how many illusions Britain’s state pen-pushers and button-pushers have about how loved they are by the rest of us. When we encounter them we tend not to discuss any feelings of rage towards them that we may be engulfed by, which is all part of why we often get so enraged with them. On the other hand, they talk about the “front line” services that they supply, like they know they are in a war, rather than serving anyone besides their bosses. Their calculation has to be that the government needs them, in order for the government to go on being the government. But, the threat by them to stop the government … spending money, won’t necessarily come over as much of a threat to the nation as a whole.

But those state teachers might also want to be a bit careful. If they go on strike too enthusiastically, they might find that people might work out how to get along okay without them, and maybe with humiliating speed.

29 comments to Pointing the finger at strikes in China and in Britain

  • Roue le Jour

    I know all about Lin Chung and the nine dozen heroes of Lang Shang Po, it were on the telly when I were a kid. Don’t suppose that counts as it were a Nip production. That Hu Soon Yang was pretty, though.

    I would have thought the teachers were one of the few groups of public sector workers with real clout. Without them, people are going to have to do their own child minding. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do get some public support.

  • I know all about Lin Chung and the nine dozen heroes of Lang Shang Po, it were on the telly when I were a kid. Don’t suppose that counts as it were a Nip production. That Hu Soon Yang was pretty, though.


  • 'Nuke' Gray

    We already know chinese sayings! “Many hands make light work”- tell that to the electricians! “May you live in interesting times!”- that’s one for the media! (Yes, I know that this is really a western motto pretending to be eastern, but it seems so right!)
    the Chinese governments throughout the ages have always been thin-skinned, even worse than americans when foreigners don’t worship their system of government! Let’s just criticize nonstop, and say that free speech is part of the genetic make-up of Caucasians- we can’t help ourselves!

  • Kim du Toit

    There’s an interesting parallel here. There’s a huge difference between going on strike because you have to work standing up continuously while you’re dehydrated with a bursting bladder, and going on strike because your number of paid vacation days has been reduced from 40 to 35 (or whatever the pathetic reason the unions can dream up).

    The first scenario is a classic example of why a union is needed, the second is ditto of union power that continues to grow long past the time when its purpose has been fulfilled, and what’s left is petty stuff to whine about.

    It’s the same thing when some woman compares her backside getting pinched at work to being a slave worker at Ravensbrück, or Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton thundering that some Black sociopath being justly imprisoned and executed for capital murder is exactly like apartheid, man.

    Let’s face it: in the West, the major ills and injustices of society have been addressed and corrected. What’s left is small potatoes, comparatively speaking — yet paradoxically, the powers of the institutions which have helped bring about the corrections now have enormous power — far more power than is needed to address the last vestiges of misogyny and racism which persist in the occasional dark corner of ignorance and prejudice.

    The only way these institutions can continue to justify their existence is by inflating every tiny slight, every imagined “injury” into a cause célèbre, either by exaggeration or outright untruth.

    The plight of those unfortunate workers in Panyu is terribly distressing; the “plight” of downtrodden union workers in the West is simply risible. Yet the latter can down tools whenever they feel like it, whereas the former have to stand at their machines with dry mouths and bursting bladders.

    Maybe we should have a “workers exchange”, whereby pampered and well-fed British union workers spend a year in places like Panyu, and the unfortunate Chinese and Korean workers do likewise in Dagenham and Newcastle.

    I know… I can’t stop laughing at the visual, either.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Lin Chung and the nine dozen heroes of Lang Shang Po…

    is a reference to Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, or The Marshes of Mount Liang), which is one of the “four great novels” of Chinese literature.

    It’s an adventure epic, analogous to Robin Hood/Zorro/Rob Roy etc. Lin Chung is one of the leaders of the outlaw band. Hu Soon Yang is a prominent female character.

    It was filmed by the Shaw brothers in 1972. There was a Japanese miniseries of it in the late 1970s, with Sanae Tsuchida (a very nice looking lady) as Hu Soon Yang. I guess that’s what Roue le Jour saw.

    (The original novel appeared in Japanese translation in the mid-1700s, and was a huge hit in Japan. One famous edition was illustrated by Hokusai.)

    (Confession: I knew none of this. Googling on the mentioned names turned up the title “Water Margin”, which led to the Wiki article.)

  • Roue le Jour

    Sorry, I thought the Water Margin was common knowledge. It was a very popular series at the time. It was culturally interesting in that young males had no difficulty mastering a tricky Asian name when there was a pretty bird on the end of it. I’d have sworn it was earlier than late 70s, still, Wikipedia’s never wrong;)

    I think Kim du Toit understates. It isn’t that the pressure groups are exaggerating every minor injustice, this presupposes they are aiming for some kind of equilibrium, rather that they exist to promote the interests of their group and they will continue to do that regardless of whether their group is disadvantaged or not. This is not particularly surprising, as the alternative is that the pressure group ceases to exist and it’s employees get proper jobs.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    So this commie thug likes Shakespeare. Wow, give yourself a fortune cookie, smart-ass.

    Good point about the UK public sector, Brian. The UK public may start to get a real taste for homeschooling. Silver linings, etc.

  • llamas

    I’m hearing some rumblings of these sorts of issues from my Chinese suppliers. It seems that the market for middle- and highly-skilled workers in the SEZs is getting very tight indeed. I heard of one worker (female) who was highly-skilled in a certain CAD software who asked for (and got) relocation expenses and a significant hiring bonus to move to a new employer. Absolutely unheard-of even a couple of years ago. But the line workers are still treated very-much as a commodity by their managers, who are slow to grasp that these folks are developing new options every day. Just as the Greeks cannot grasp that the gravy-train of ever-expanding benefits cannot go on for ever, so the Chinese are slow to grasp that the priceless advantage of endless supplies of cheap, compliant semi-skilled labour could not last forever either.

    As KdT notes, comparing the labour conditions of some of these workers with the pampered princelets of Western unionized labour is absurd. But where are the labour unions that represent the interests of the workers of the Chinese socialist workers’ paradise?

    Same place as the unions that represented the workers of the old Soviet-bloc socialist workers’ paradise, I guess.

    We should also not lose sight of the fact that, for many of the workers described, the alternative is a lifetime of endless, back-breaking, mind-numbing stoop labour in dreadful conditions for pittance wages, and a place on the line at Foxcomm or Sony is still a much better deal, even with the discomforts described. Most of the issues described, for example, are not infrastructure issues but management issues. The workers at Foxcomm have modern bathrooms and plenty of them – the issue is the managers who try and control them. Their wages are good and their working conditions generally quite excellent – you can’t build IPods in a dark and dirty shop – they now just need to break through the wall of reflexive command-and-control management that is often the hallmark of socialist-dominated states, and they’ll be right.



  • telling “Britain” (by which he seems to mean the British government)

    He may have difficultly realising there is a difference.

  • The first scenario is a classic example of why a union is needed

    I don’t think a union is needed at all (although I do think that it should be perfectly legal) – all that’s needed is a free labor market.

  • In the UK tere is something else afoot. Some of these union leaders are seeing our “interesting times” s an opportunity to ppush their frankly Trotskyite message. In their dreams at night they see themslelves on the barricades waving the Red Flag.

    This has happened before. The miner’s strike in the ’80s (aka King Arthur’s Children’s Crusade) was only tangentially about pit closures (hence Scargill not running a proper ballot – e would have lost) but vainglorious attempt by Scargill to spark a revolution and usher in the People’s Republic.

    In the spirit of what Kim said my Grandad (a pit shot-firer) only once went on strike nd that was to get the pit showers installed so they didn’t have to be hosed-down in the backyard by their wives.

    Nice piece overall Brian. It continues to amaze me the extent to which people simply don’t see rising wealth as the major driver of better working conditions.

  • all that’s needed is a free labor market

    Plus, obviously, no artificially created barriers to entry for new companies, such as various regulations now in place not only in places such as China, but in much of the “free” West.

  • “Do any of China’s critics know anything about Chinese literature?”

    As it happens, yes: Liang Qichao’s (æ¢å•Ÿè¶…) writings for the Hundred Days Reform movement, and again whilst exiled in Japan from the late 1890s through to the early 1900s, had serious political import (he was an advocate of constitional monarchy, popularizing terms such as “revolution”, “nation-state” and “citizen”) in addition to encouraging the movement away from classical script to the vernacular. Would Sun Yat-sen have succeeded in his nationalist revolution had Liang’s writings never been published? Perhaps, but it’s probably true that Liang’s writings helped to encourage the more radical reformers who followed him.

  • PeterT

    “I would have thought the teachers were one of the few groups of public sector workers with real clout. Without them, people are going to have to do their own child minding. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do get some public support.”

    Or maybe they get angry at the undeserving twerps (the teachers).

    “Maybe we should have a “workers exchange”, whereby pampered and well-fed British union workers spend a year in places like Panyu, and the unfortunate Chinese and Korean workers do likewise in Dagenham and Newcastle.”

    Good idea.

    Maybe then the damn London underground would get fixed once and for all. Seriously. The shit TFL pulls (or maybe it is the unions) would not go down in Korea/Japan/China. The damn escalators at Bank station would be fixed within a week.

    I remember going to Shanghai a few years ago. My friend laughed at the underground map my lonely planet book had on the back cover. “2 lines, that was a year ago; we have 7 now”. Obviously some eminent domain issues here, but still.

    I agree with Alisa. Unions were never needed for the wealth/bargaining power reason discussed at length in this post.

  • Roue le Jour

    PeterT, remember the majority of parents are on benefits. It doesn’t hurt them if teachers get paid more. The figure quoted a decade ago was 80% of children living in households in receipt of some form of benefit, excluding child benefit.

    We’ve discussed TfL here before. It takes them several times longer to repair an escalator than it takes the manufacture to install a new one. If that’s not a scam I’m a Chinaman. (Still on topic;))

    I would have to disagree with the original need for unions. As long as there are more workers than jobs, employers can hold wages to the floor. And it is perfectly possible for employers to ensure that this is the case. A recent example was the transfer of IT jobs to India. The policy was defended at the time, tongue in cheek in my view, that it was only a modest percentage of the total number of jobs. However, the relationship of the workers/jobs ratio to wages is quite a sharp S curve, and loss of 10% of jobs will lower wages dramatically, which is what happened.

    Public sector unions are quite a different matter. I believe they were illegal originally in the land of the free, yet another thing the founders got right that has since been overturned.

  • Roue, I was not talking about public-sector unions at all (PBUT).

    Yes, if there are more workers than jobs, wages would be adjusted accordingly – so what? When there are more shoes produced than people willing to buy them, prices drop just as accordingly. Labor is a product just like any other.

    On the transfer of IT jobs to India, it may be worth stopping to think why did that happen in the first place. I do know that the transfer of manufacturing jobs to China had its origins in governments’ interferences in the labor markets in the West – could there be something different at play with IT?

  • Paul Marks

    Firstly one must draw a great distinction between union mutual aid functions (“Friendly Society” or “Fraternity” functions) in such things as paying legal costs, or providing health or old age benefits, and “COLLECTIVE BARGAINING”.

    One of the basic things that Classical Economists discovered and taught was that “collective bargaining” (the basis of unionism) COULD NOT improve the long term wages and conditions of workers as a whole – over what would happen anyway in the cause of economic development.

    Certainly it could improve the wages and conditions (over the market rate) of union members for a while – at the expense of nonmembers (who would either be forced into very low paying jobs or into unemployment), but in the longer term even union members would be WORSE off than they otherwise would be.

    All the paramilitary tactics of “collective bargaining” – picket lines (a military term of course – for a military thing), threats to kill “black legs”, occupations of places of work, threats against employers…… none of it works (in the long term) to the advantage of union members (although union LEADERS and ACTIVISTS may gain a start on the ladder of political power by these means).

    I repeat that this was one of the great basic lessons of political economy – and the logic of Classical Economists on this point (whether academics – or that disabled 19th century shoe maker who wrote on these matters in my home town of Kettering) is not refutable.

    For more modern works on the labour market – read such things as “The Strike Threat System” by W.H. Hutt (how union power depends partly on government granted powers and partly or raw intimidation and threats of violence – and how, in the long term, it is not even to the benefit of union members let alone anyone else).

    “But employers can use violence to”.

    If they use violence to defend their property that is NOT aggression. But if they use violence to make people work or to prevent them leaving then it IS aggression.

    In fact this is called SLAVERY.

    There is a vast difference between slavery and voluntary employment.

    A difference deliberatly confused by supporters of the Confederacy (in formal language “The Slave Owning States Of America” – see their constitution).

    Such books as “Cannibals All” (1854 – George Fitzhugh of Virginia) not only accept the Labour Theory of Value (contrary to popular misunderstandings – it was not universally accepted in the early 19th century, although the leading intellectual of the South, John C. Calhoun, was also a labour theory of value man), but make the same (false) claim that the Marxist do – i.e. that an employer who employees people who may leave at any time (and not come back) is the same as slave owner who owns slaves and forces them to work (and not to try to leave) with threats of violence.

    During the struggle of the savage war of 1861 – 1865 (although for people in “bleeding Kansas” the war really started long before 1861) it was the Confederates (not the Union) that ended up with state control of all major industry and transport.

    Indeed the South came close to the idea of “Slaves Without Masters” (the subtitle of George Fitzhugh) although the private ownership of farms (and plantations) meant they never actually “achieved” Fitzugh’s dream (not that Jefferson Davis and co ever shared it – they just denounced evil northern “capitalists” without thinking of the implications of the false ideas they, the Confederates, were using to attack these evil “capitalists”)

    The dream of Rousseau (and of the person in whose house he was a tutor – the Abbe de Mably) of a society where no one was an employer – because everyone worked for the collective good and private property was abolished.

    The dream of de Mably, Rousseau, Karl Marx and so many others.

    Being employed by someone is being a “slave”, an employee is the victim of “aggression”.

    And being totally controlled (in everything) by the representatives of the collective, without any right to leave (and so on) is “true freedom”.

    Even after all my years of studying these folk it still astonishes me that they believe this crap.

  • Roue le Jour

    Alisa, I’m not following your argument. You say unions are not needed, but labour is a product like any other? Surely that is why unions are/were needed? To prevent employers treating labour as just another cost to be reduced as far as possible?

    On IT jobs, I wasn’t talking about the why, but the effect. Everybody understands supply and demand apply to labour as it does to any other commodity. What many people don’t realise is how sharp the S curve is. Halving the number of jobs does not halve the wages, it collapses them to floor level. Halving the wages only requires something like a 10% reduction in the number of jobs.

  • Roue, my point was precisely that employers should be able to treat labor as just another cost to be reduced as far as possible. Employees should not be prevented by the government from unionizing, but employers should be able to fire union members simply for being union members (or for being anything else, for that matter).

    All this should be taken in the context of a truly free market. But the point is that in any market, all actors, their actions and the subsequent products are interconnected. When wages change in a certain sector, it is eventually reflected in the prices not only in that sector, but in several others. When wages change across the market, it is reflected in prices across the market. When you earn less, you eventually end up paying less as well, provided the market is allowed to adjust freely with no interference “from above”. That is why it is important to consider the reasons for that IT-labor flight, and not just focus on it as a reason for other problems.

  • Smited – stay tuned.

    de-smitten now: MJ

  • Roue le Jour

    OK, gotcha. You’re arguing the satanic mill owner case. There are 1,000 workers in town, I’m the only employer and only need three-quarters of ’em, they’re all desperate for work to feed their families, so I only need to pay them subsistence because there’s another 250 keen to take the place of any that don’t like it?

    I wasn’t seeing anything sinister in the off-shoring of IT jobs. IT people aren’t unionised, so the market had freely settled on a supply/demand equilibrium that was naturally still higher than that in India. As per shipbuilding, textiles etc. etc. What other reasons should I have been considering?

  • I didn’t know we were playing the ‘gotcha’ game. And don’t you find it strange that in the same comment you are arguing both against the Satanic Mills case and the flight of IT jobs to India? Do you see what I’m saying?

    Neither I am aware of anything sinister behind the IT thing. What I am presuming (and would be very surprised to be proved wrong) is very mundane and non-sinister government meddling in the labor market. For just one example, something like a minimum-wage law can often be enough to choke some labor markets in one’s back yard, only to see them reappear in far away places.

  • Roue le Jour

    Rereading that I see it was ambiguous. I meant ‘gotcha’ in the sense ‘I understand you’. Sorry for the confusion, entirely my fault, that’s precisely why one shouldn’t resort to the vernacular in debate.

    I was never arguing against the flight of IT jobs to India, I was using it as an illustration of the S curve, to show that you don’t have to lose that many jobs to collapse wages.

    In my view IT’s big mistake was not forming a union or professional association specifically for the purpose of making political donations to leave them the heck alone. Would have been worth a try.

    To get back to the point. If you want to say unions serve no useful purpose now, I would agree. If you want to say they never served a useful purpose, (for their members) as seems to be the case, then I think I might take issue with that.

    The key point is that you seem to be assuming that employers will not try to manipulate the labour market to workers detriment. I think they will, and unions are the workers defence against that.

  • Roue le Jour


  • 'Nuke' Gray

    smitten myself- keep your hands off Alisa! She’s MY air- date! find your own imaginery friend!

  • Roue le Jour

    Terribly sorry, Nuke. I do miss IanB so.

  • Gotcha, Roue:-) Seriously though, it is at least as much my fault – there was no reason for me to read anything unfriendly into that comment.

    I think that there is a fine line to be drawn between unions as we understand them today and voluntary spontaneous cooperation between employees in order to improve their working conditions. I think that the latter was what actually occurred in the relatively short transitional period of industrialization in the West – and to me it seems to have been perfectly legitimate and possibly useful, within the context of rapidly evolving new industries and markets, with not-yet established competition, widely accepted standards etc. The problem was that the latter seemed to have soon morphed into the former, with various politicians and politicians in-the-making seeing a “good thing” and making sure not to miss the wagon. The rest is history, as they say.

  • Roue le Jour

    Then happily we are in agreement.