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Amid Honda and Foxconn tragedies in China, a new era of worker activism

City governments across China need to repay the debt owed to the migrant workers who have generated their tax revenues for so long, says prominent workers’ rights advocate Han Dongfang.

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After 30 years of reform and spectacular economic growth, the cracks are beginning to show.

The workers who have created China’s economic miracle are tiring of being treated like cogs in a machine, working long hours in dangerous conditions for derisory pay. They are now saying enough is enough, staging strikes and protests across the country to demand not just their basic legal rights, but a better standard of living, better working conditions, and a better future.

Of course, strikes and worker protests are nothing new in China. In China’s manufacturing heartland, the Pearl River Delta, for example, there are up to 10,000 labor disputes each year. Indeed, back in the spring of 2008, a high-ranking local union official described strikes as being “as natural as arguments between a husband and wife.”

But what we are seeing now is an intensive phase of worker activism that reflects the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy and, more important, the failure of the government to tackle the fundamental issues that give rise to these disputes in the first place: low pay, the lack of any formal channels through which workers can voice their grievances and demands, and the continued exclusion of migrant workers from education, health care, and social services in the cities.

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