Using robots to attack labor upsurge in China

From the July-August 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Using robots to attack labor upsurge in China

Workers who created a wave of strikes in China from auto and electronics to steel over the past two years have confronted the power of private capital, the state and the Communist Party. In 2011 alone, China’s State Council acknowledged 500 large-scale “mass incidents” per day, including peasant resistance to land grabs as well as strikes.

An artificial labor shortage has helped workers, as factories informally blacklist all but young migrant workers who they expect to put up with inhumanly long hours, intensive labor and subsistence wages. Strike pressure in province after province to raise the minimum wage by as much as 30% has lifted the floor wage on average over 12% above rampant inflation.

Workers’ protest, even suicides, spotlighted the life-endangering hours, 60 and even 80 hours a week, at Foxconn’s Apple and Microsoft production facilities. Responding to public airing of grievances, Foxconn claimed to reduce overtime—by pressuring workers to keep working, but off the books, for free. Even where Foxconn honestly reduced hours, workers were left impoverished on straight time.

Workers in Shenzhen who struck Panasonic’s OHMS Electronics in March were recently allowed to elect their union leaders, as were workers at Hitachi’s Shenzhen Hailiang Storage who had struck in December. This exposes that, until now, the official trade union had permitted the capitalists to fill union slots with their own executives.

Capitalists’ ultimate weapon over Chinese workers’ insurgency is more capital—automation and robots. As Karl Marx said, “…strikes have regularly given rise to the invention and application of new machines. Machines were, it may be said, the weapon employed by the capitalist to quell the revolt of specialized labor.”

Foreign investors 20 years ago forced Chinese workers at their benches to compete against heavily capitalized Western factories. Now one company alone, Foxconn with its 1.5 million workers across China, wants a million robots in its factories to undermine workers’ power.

—Bob McGuire

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