Industrial strikes beyond token protests are uncommon in China but growing in number by all accounts. The one at a Honda parts factory in Foshan that has shut down all four of the Japanese car makers assembly lines in the country is notable. It is being talked of as the largest industrial action since China started opening up its economy to foreign investment.
Workers at Honda’s Foshan plant are demanding that their monthly salaries be raised from 1,000-1,5000 yuan ($146-220) to 2,000-2,500 yuan. Minimum wage in the city is 920 yuan. The plant employs some 1,850 workers making transmissions and engine parts for Honda’s three joint venture factories building cars for the domestic market and its one that makes the export-only Jazz compacts. They say they want more money to offset rising consumer prices.
Negotiations between the company and the workers broke down, prompting local officials to step in. With labor shortages being reported in the Pearl River Delta, workers have a stronger bargaining hand than before. So manufacturing wage costs seem likely to rise across the board.
For a long time there has been a striking difference between the way China and Japan expanded their economies through export-led growth. Japan made its goods cheaper by taking labour costs out through systems and automation. China did so by putting low-cost labour in. The low-cost labour model was always going to be unsustainable if China was to move up the development ladder towards higher-valued manufacturing. Labour shortages now showing up in the Pearl River delta and other coastal manufacturing heartlands — and noted by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in his web chat on Saturday — may be the trigger for this and it could also be one of the unintended consequences of last year’s massive stimulus spending combining with Beijing’s moves to narrow the income gap between coast and country.
The money flowing to the inland has created jobs and opportunities closer to home for the 150 million migrant workers who before the global economic slowdown had flocked to the export factories of the coasts. They were dispatched home when exports slumped. Now exports are growing again, they have chosen not to come back, despite employers offering better pay and conditions and provinces raising minimum wages. We are now seeing signs of export manufacturers reorganizing to lower unit labour costs through more efficient production and to move up the value chain with their products as has been happening for a couple of years. The timing could not be better. A growing domestic market provides them with alternative customers. Rising wages will fuel that domestic consumption, so it is a virtuous circle as well as being part of the cycle of economic development that all economies follow.
Manufacturers would anyway have to do that because of underlying demographic changes. The population is aging in a way that will change the country from being inherently a surplus one into a deficit one. The fall in world trade, the slump in China’s exports and now the shortage of hands at the workbenches of the Pearl River delta is only hurrying forward the inevitable.