Workers of several factories in Guangdong province have been drawing global attention over the past couple of weeks. First, there were reports of workers jumping to their deaths in a factory of Foxconn, the world's largest electronics manufacturer. Around the same time, some 2,000 workers went on a two-week strike at a Honda component manufacturing factory, halting production in four Honda assembly plants. The two were unrelated incidents but the causes were similar - low pay, long working hours, absence of channels to redress their grievances, and trade union branches that exist only in name.
The methods chosen by the workers to protest against their plight were very different - Foxconn workers committed suicide out of desperation, but despite consequential international publicity their co-workers did not seize the opportunity to organize themselves in protest.
The Honda workers, on the other hand, were well organized, strategic and assertive, demanding sizeable wage increases, proposing a pay scale and a career ladder, electing their own representatives, re-electing office-bearers to their union branch and demonstrating solidarity and a determination to win.
The passivity of the Foxconn workers is not new. Migrant workers generally accept their fate, and protests only flare up when work begins to stretch their physical tolerance to the limit, or when their legal rights are violated and wages not paid.
In contrast, the Honda workers went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions, something that is unprecedented among Chinese migrant workers. Their employer apparently had not violated the law by paying them a wage below the legal minimum level. They were fighting proactively for their interests rather than for their minimal legal rights.
The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has realized that the Honda strike is a different form of labor protest, not least because it goes to the heart of a problem - what is the union's legitimate role. Its impact is potentially enormous.
At Foxconn, the union did not even come forward to make a statement. And at Honda, the union blatantly sided with the local government, which in turn was on the side of the employer. In both places, the workplace unions fitted the stereotypical image that migrant workers have of the official unions - that they are "useless".
There are a handful of city-level and workplace unions in State enterprises or large joint ventures that play an intermediary role between the management and workers. They have softened some of the harsher edges of management practices. They are even able to informally negotiate better wages for workers, which are then formalized by so-called "collective consultation agreements".
In contrast, in foreign enterprises in Guangdong's Pearl River Delta region, union representatives (where they exist, that is) are assigned by the local governments, whose paramount interest is to attract foreign investment. These governments, historically, are former production brigades or communes or townships, which now rent out land to companies and appoint a few local union-ignorant people to run the trade union offices. Even some higher-level union officials dismiss them as "fake unions".