[Guest post: Manfred Elfstrom is a PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Before beginning his doctoral studies, Mr. Elfstrom was responsible for China programming at the International Labor Rights Forum and was Campaigns Coordinator at China Labor Watch.]
A series of exposés of labor conditions at factories supplying Apple have put Chinese workers in the western media spotlight again. Amid the important conversations that have been restarted about consumers’ responsibilities for supply chain abuses, something equally vital has been overlooked: the extraordinary degree to which Chinese workers are themselves taking action to improve their lives. My Ushahidi-powered website, China Strikes, attempts to document just that.
Since the fall of 2010, I have mapped protests and strikes by Chinese workers across a range of sectors. Most of the incidents I document come from news reports, but many are also derived from blogs and individual tip-offs via the site’s “submit a report” function. In recent months, I have categorized the reports by the grievances of the workers (injuries, layoffs, unpaid wages, etc.), company ownership (e.g., state-owned enterprises, foreign or joint-venture enterprises or domestic private enterprises), and the number of workers involved. I have also included incidents dating back to the beginning of 2008, from before the onset of the global financial crisis.
A few interesting patterns have emerged. For example, the strike wave started at a Honda auto parts plant in 2010 stands out as a real peak of activism, not since repeated, though this could be mostly a function of the unprecedented level of media reporting given to Chinese labor at that time. More fundamentally, it is clear that strikes and protests involving plain demands for higher wages—as opposed to demands for the observation of legal minimums or payment of wage arrears, etc.—are on the rise relative to other demands. This seems to indicate a feeling of empowerment on the part of workers. But will this trend survive an economic contraction? What does it mean for activists’ (and officials’) efforts to strengthen the legal channels available to labor or for new collective bargaining initiatives? I hope my website will help those in solidarity with Chinese workers to navigate these questions.
Ushahidi’s software is perfect for my project. It allows me to show my incident reports in a very easy to understand format. If there is anything I would improve, it would be the process of downloading data from the site: in the Excel sheet that is generated, there is not a separate column for each category I’ve created, meaning that I have to go through each report and separate out its elements again. This is a minor point, though—my experience with the site overall has been excellent and I look forward to building on what China Strikes has gathered so far, with help from all those who care about the future of the Chinese working class.