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Sat, Dec 25, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Toyland workers in China flexing industrial muscle

NEW DEALLaborers have for years been enduring dire work conditions in an area that makes 75 percent of the world's Christmas gifts. But their tolerance may be reaching a limit


All is not well in the real Toyland. Last month, thousands of workers went on strike. Millions more are seeking alternative employment. The running costs of Christmas are going through the roof. And ferocious haggling over prices is pushing toymakers out of business in record numbers.

That, at least, is one interpretation of recent trends in the workshop of the world: Guangdong Province in southern China, where labor -- until recently thought to be docile in nature and unlimited in supply -- is either drying up or squaring up to some of the most exploitative management practices in industrial history.

With its palm trees, high-rise apartment blocks and hangar-sized factories, Guang-dong could not be much more different from the north pole. But over the past 10 years, it has come to play an increasingly central role in the global Christmas experience.

By one estimate, more than 80 percent of the world's Christmas trees and 75 percent of the toys that are wrapped up under them are produced within an 80km radius of Shenzhen port. The dense cluster of production lines is also the origin of many gifts for adults, including clothes, shoes and electrical appliances.

International retailers and manufacturers outsource here because Guangdong's labor costs are among the lowest in the world. More than 80 percent of the 10 million population of Shenzhen and neighboring Dongguan are migrant workers from the countryside. They have no rights to residency, little or no support from trade unions and often get paid a lot less than the minimum wage of 610 yuan (US$74) a month.

For years, these conditions were grudgingly endured because labor supply far outstripped demand in China. With the world's biggest population -- 1.3 billion people -- and widespread rural poverty, many economists assumed that it would continue to do so for a long time to come, but there are growing signs that the tolerance of this floating workforce may be reaching its limit.

In the autumn, the labor ministry reported a shortfall of 2 million workers in Dongguan and Shenzhen. Local recruitment agencies say they are struggling to meet even a tenth of the demand from factories. Guangzhou city was so alarmed by the shortage that it raised its minimum wage by 35 percent. For the first time, Shenzhen's government has sent out recruitment teams to Sichuan, Yunnan and Henan instead of waiting for the workers to flock to the city.

Sociologists are divided about the causes of the labor shortage. Some say it is because conditions in the countryside are improving, while the threefold increase in wages in Guangdong over the past 15 years has failed to keep up with the fivefold rise in prices. Others argue that migrants are tired of being excluded from the benefits of a region that claims to be the richest in China.

With jobs easier to come by, workers are increasingly emboldened to take industrial action. Among the biggest of many recent strikes took place at the Haiyan Electronics factory, which makes DVD and CD players for the international market. Last month, 3,000 employees blocked the streets for five hours in protest at a basic monthly salary of 230 yuan.

Nine of the organizers were arrested, but the demonstration worked -- the vice-governor of Shenzhen intervened personally to fire the manager and triple salaries -- which brought them to just above the minimum wage. The blue-collar workers -- almost all of whom are middle-aged women supporting children left behind in the countryside -- say it was worth it.

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