China built its export economy on low-cost labor. But that labor now expects more for its effort. In recent weeks, factories making goods for major brands like Apple, Adidas and New Balance have seen workers strike for better conditions and higher pay. Workers also have struck firms announcing layoffs.
At one company that supplies bras and underwear to racy brands like Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein, it was anything but model behavior at the factory. A blogger reported that a female manager told a worker to “go jump off the building,” and when the worker climbed to the roof, yelled “don’t block her, she won’t jump.”
That bad girl management tactic, in the wake of last year’s Chinese factory suicides, sent some 400 workers out on strike.
More broadly, strikes reflect a shift in China’s labor pool. Factory workers in China are better educated, less rural and more Internet savvy than the previous generation of workers. These factors make them more likely to speak up for themselves and less inclined to accept poor pay and working conditions, especially with inflation on the rise in China. That means “the days when Chinese companies can maximize their profits through minimum labor expenditures are now fading away” says China Briefing, a magazine and website on Chinese business.
That shift has some Chinese companies considering moving away from the coasts, in search of less aggressive workers.