The watershed moment for China's beleaguered migrant workers came on a hot day in May last year.
Striking workers at the Nanhai Honda components factory in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangdong province found themselves facing off against 200 enforcers in yellow baseball caps, sent in by their own trade union's bosses to put them back to work.
A fight broke out and several were injured -- but the workers made their point, winning an apology from their official union, a 33 per cent pay increase from their employer (amounting to an average of 611 yuan, or $95, per month), and setting an example for many more walkouts that followed at automotive manufacturers that summer.
The case, cited in a new study of China's labour force, suggests the new generation of migrant workers is very different than their predecessors, who are building China's roads, railways and cities and running its factories. They are more educated, with some 67.2 per cent having a high school education or more, change jobs more often and are less likely to come straight from the farm. And they are far less willing to put up with the long hours, poor working conditions and low pay that their parents settled for.
"The movement was propelled by regular rises in the cost of living, and a growing sense that workers were being denied a fair share not only of their own company's profits but of the benefits accruing to society as a whole," read the report, produced by the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Labour Bulletin, based on events from 2009 to summer 2011. "The government and employers have been put on notice that the standard business model of the last two decades, of management dictating pay and working conditions to their employees, is no longer sustainable, and that workers need and deserve a greater say in their own affairs."
Local governments began raising their minimum wage on urging from China's central government, after the global financial crisis of late 2008 and the massive Chinese government stimulus package that followed. Boosting domestic consumption was key to keeping the Chinese economy afloat, and maintaining public order key to keeping political power.
But unrest grew as exports fell -- China had an estimated 30,000 labour related strike or protest actions in summer 2009 -- and did not let up even as exports recovered. Also grabbing headlines have been a rash of suicides at Foxconn, the electronics manufacturing giant producing Apple's iPads and iPhones, which forced wage increases and changes in management policy.
Those changing working conditions, while good news for the workers, will eventually have implications for China's status as a leading producer of cheap goods for the world. The head of Beijing Hyundai Motor Corporation, Jae-Man Noh, told a recent briefing of journalists that increased costs of doing business in China are now "inevitable," and that protests have shown the need for auto manufacturers to be more aware of the mood among employees.
"We need to let go our perception that the Chinese market is a low price production base," Mr. Noh said.