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Chinese Factories Make First Forays into Elections

Elections are coming to China—to Chinese factories, at least. Foxconn, manufacturers of all things Apple and China’s largest private sector employer, is preparing free labor union elections for its Chinese factories, a first for a firm of its size in China. The Financial Times reports:

The move is part of Foxconn’s attempts to tweak its manufacturing machine, which makes a large proportion of the world’s gadgets such as iPhones, tablets and computers, in response to frequent worker protests, riots, strikes and soaring labour costs. Beijing is also encouraging collective bargaining as a way to help contain the growing unrest.

Since a wave of worker suicides at the company’s Chinese plants in 2009 and 2010, its treatment of its huge workforce has attracted intense scrutiny. Foxconn has become a focus for criticism of practices widespread in Chinese factories including illegal overtime, low pay and the use of underage workers.

After the Lunar New Year holiday this month, Foxconn, with the help of the FLA, will begin training its Chinese workers in how to vote for their representatives. . . . Since the unions have so far had no real role in addressing worker grievances and have been dominated by management, most young workers know nothing about what a real labour union is supposed to do.

Experts disagree about the impact China’s unprecedented growth will have on its authoritarian regime. Those who argue that economic growth tends to produce a more open political system are sure to get a boost from this news. The workers who keep China’s industrial machine running are demanding more representative labor unions. As their demands are met, they’ll come to expect the same of their political officials over time, one suspects.

This is good news for now, but the real problem will come down the road when tough cost competition and automation make it impossible for companies to meet worker demands for higher wages. That’s when we’ll see how stable China really is.

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