Migrant workers have driven China's economic miracle. This is most evident in the Pearl River Delta, the world's factory floor. In the major cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, there are gleaming malls, brand new metros and top-notch infrastructure – ports, highways and electrical grids.

As China has risen, though, so has the price of labor. And as China's most productive region transforms from low-skill manufacturing to more value-added products, the expectations of migrant workers have also changed. Once happy to escape rural poverty, they are now demanding rights workers in democracies take for granted: overtime, safe working conditions and collective bargaining. In Guangdong province, new legislation has even raised wages to $100 a week for some garment workers.

The wage increase has been won in large part by a movement led by a few former migrant workers turned amateur lawyers. They've formed a loose coalition and meet monthly throughout China. These leaders organize workers and settle labor disputes while making sure that their advocacy doesn't meet the legal definition for a union. In China, all official unions are government controlled. So these advocates must work within the constraints of Chinese labor law while furtively seeking funding from foreign NGOs (which is also frowned upon) to stay alive. These leaders have become adept at working within the system. One activist, for example, who is setting up a holistic workers center that aids with housing, education and advocacy, has even enlisted local government under the banner of building a "harmonious society."

These advocates also face legal challenges from the entrenched lobbies of factory owners from Hong Kong, Taiwan and, increasingly, the Mainland, who are seeing their margins evaporate as the price of labor in the region continues to climb. This project examines the Pearl River Delta's labor movement, and the challenges that workers, labor leaders and bosses face as the region moves up the value chain.

Adam Matthews's picture
Adam Matthews is an award-winning investigative journalist and a researcher-in-residence at The New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study. Between 2009 and 2011, he was based in Delhi, where re-...
Jocelyn Baun's picture
Jocelyn Baun is a freelance photographer. She relocated to New Delhi from New York in 2010.  In NYC, she trained under the English fashion photographer David Sims as his full-time digital tech for...

China’s Rising Labor Movement