Monday, February 28, 2005

Chinese workers riot for the right to work overtime

Dongguan has a problem:
Taiwanese factories in Dongguan [...] demonstrated for two days and damaged equipment and factory cars. 500 armed police arrived and quashed the riot. Several leaders were arrested.

The main cause for the riot was the limitation on working hours at the factory. The shorter hours have been requested by US companies so as to avoid criticism from various groups on long working hours. However, the mainly migrant workforce want to work longer hours so they can earn more. Consensus had been reached by the US companies, the Taiwanese-invested factory and local government that the maximum working hours per week should be set at 60 hours [which is still a breach of Chinese Labour Law, but less than other manufacturing plants]. However, this reduction in hours was unsatisfactory for the workers and the resulting riot was serious.

In 1998 I spent a few weeks at IDT's electronics factory in Dongguan overseeing production of the first-generation PocketMail device. The working conditions for the women on the assembly line were...surprisingly good. They seemed like a happy, healthy bunch, assembling electronics in a bright, clean, air-conditioned environment.

(For long hours, of course, and at wages of perhaps $20/month plus room and board. Still, this was transitional employment, the local equivalent of a minimum wage job rather than a permanent career position.)

We do third-world workers a disservice to treat them like children and assume they are being taken advantage of. It's worth considering that people might work long hours because they want to work long hours.