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Sunday, June 13, 2010

China’s Workers Strike Back

As a wave of strikes at Honda and protests over worker suicides at Foxconn led the firms—two of China’s major foreign manufacturers—to offer workers significant pay raises, China watchers are wondering whether the country is facing the end of cheap labor. After a string of suicides among employees at Foxconn’s plant in Shenzhen, where the starting wage was a paltry $130 per month, the company effectively offered to double many workers’ salaries. Simultaneously, 1,900 workers at Honda’s transmission plant in nearby Foshan staged a two-week walkout to demand better pay from a firm that recently announced record sales in China. Workers at two other Honda plants followed suit, halting production again.

The Honda strike was “a watershed,” says Ian Crawford, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, since it marked “the first time a big international company [in China] has had a formal mass withdrawal of labor over wages, with at least tacit union acceptance.” The incidents suggest that China’s migrant workers are increasingly unwilling to accept bottom-of-the-barrel wages or the -military-style discipline of factories like Foxconn’s. “Workers today are more aware of their rights—they can go online, they get information about what happens abroad,” says Liu Kaiming, a migrant-worker expert at Shenzhen’s Institute of Contemporary Observation.

China’s one-child policy—which has reduced the supply of able-bodied youth—also puts migrant workers in a stronger position, says Liu. In fact, Shenzhen now faces a labor shortage, as workers move to Shanghai and other cities where the minimum wage is higher. A new law on labor-dispute resolution, introduced two years ago, has also enhanced workers’ confidence by giving them easier access to legal redress.

A more assertive migrant workforce is putting pressure on trade unions, too. Traditionally, the unions have represented government interests, which have often coincided with those of big business. But when the Foxconn crisis erupted, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions quickly appealed to private employers for higher wages and better treatment for workers across the country. Unions still see themselves as a bridge between workers and management, says Crawford, but they are now more likely to demand pay raises if they think workers are being treated unfairly. A recent Peking University survey found that unionized companies usually offer higher wages, better pensions, and slightly shorter working hours.

The risk for China is that companies, especially those on narrow margins, may consider relocating to Cambodia or Indonesia, where wages are lower and the workers potentially more pliable. Those which do remain—and Western consumers, too—may have to get used to a rise in what economists call “the China price.”
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30 years after Khmer Rouge, killing fields, Cambodia grows new generation of art conservators

The Khmer Rouge caused the deaths – by killing, starvation, and disease – of an estimated 2 million Cambodians, including an entire generation of art conservators. With the killing fields in the history books, skilled professionals are now reemerging.

Metals conservationist Huot Samnang at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is a new generation of arts conservators and educated professionals rising from the ashes of Khmer Rouge, who,in the Killing fields of the 1970s, killed most of the country's intellectuals and educated elite because they considered a threat to the Maoist regime

In a side wing of Phnom Penh’s National Museum, Noeun Von is slowly bringing a piece of his culture back to life.

He casts a cloth over a bronze Buddha, removing the dust that has settled on the figure. When this piece was first unearthed, the figure’s head had been detached from its body. But now the piece has been meticulously repaired, allowing the intricate details on the centuries-old bronze to be revealed.

Mr. Von’s handiwork, and that of his colleagues in the five-year-old metals conservation laboratory, will be on display this year in the United States as part of “Gods of Angkor,” a major exhibition of the work of Khmer bronze casters hosted by the Smithsonian Institution.

More than a presentation of Cambodia’s precious art, however, the exhibition will also shine a spotlight on the skilled professionals working to preserve this country’s culture.

An entire generation of conservators was lost in the killing fields during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power in 1979, preservation of invaluable Khmer artifacts was left largely to the foreign conservators who ventured into the country. Slowly, however, that has changed.

Through a training partnership with the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, a new crop of young museum professionals has risen to replace the lost generation.

“We can run the lab and do the conservation by ourselves,” says Huot Samnang, who heads the laboratory. “Step by step, we’re becoming self-sufficient.”

The “Gods of Angkor” will display some of the first pieces preserved entirely by the laboratory – a series of seven bronze Buddhist images. It is of no small significance in a country where cultural identity is intertwined with its rich Angkorian heritage.

“We feel proud of this exhibition,” Mr. Samnang says. “We can let the world know about our culture and the craftsmen that produced this incredible art.”

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