Now even state-controlled media has called for narrowing the wealth gap by lifting workers’ incomes to protect stability, automakers and suppliers operating in China must realise the days of really low cost labour are numbered.

The workers’ score is up almost daily now. Foxconn, a maker of consumer products for global brands like Apple recently gave workers a rise after attention was focused on a spate of employee suicides, the reasons for which are still unclear. Honda transmission and lock workers walked off the job. Result – a rise, though not as much as asked for.

Clearly, they’re getting braver and more detail of employer vs employee relations in China are leaking out. Strikes aren’t uncommon nor are small wage rises. Union officials, as such, are appointed by the government and tasked with maximising output, keeping the company happy, rather than the workers.

But insurrection is now in the ranks. CNN has an entertaining clip on its website of a manager counting down with his fingers the minutes protesting workers have to get back inside the gates before he fires them. Most return, go into the plant, work for a few minutes and then walk out again. In age of camera phones, internet, Twitter, YouTube and so on, this sort of thing is harder to hide from eyes outside the local region, let alone the country and overseas, and the global focus on worker pay and conditions is clearly unwelcome.

The latest auto skirmish was at the Toyoda Gosei plant, in the northern port city of Tianjin close to Beijing, which, according to Reuters, was shut down on Tuesday by a strike though employees went back to work the next day after managers agreed to discuss wage increases.

Production was not hit because the supplier cancelled a holiday on Wednesday. Try that in the UK or Germany.

The report said the unusual display of Chinese worker assertiveness was sensitive for the ruling Communist Party which fears movements that could undermine its legitimacy or grip on power and noted the commentary on treatment of migrant workers in the People’s Daily newspaper, which acts as a channel for government thinking, did not mention the strikes.

But echoing comments by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the week, its author said the time had come to narrow the gulf between rich and poor, which it added was stifling consumer demand.

The “made-in-China” model is “facing a turning point,” said the newspaper. It urged improved conditions for migrant workers whose cheap labour has powered China’s export-led growth.

“What is important is achieving a relatively big improvement in the lives of ordinary people, especially wage labourers and their families,” added Tang Jun, a social policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

The news agency reckons the sympathetic account of worker grievances in state media suggests that the government in Beijing wants to avoid outright confrontation with the workers and may welcome some concessions.

This week, Wen urged better treatment of the nation’s many millions of migrant labourers. He told some of them that “all parts of society should treat young migrant workers as they would treat their own children”.

The unrest has raised questions about the future of low-cost manufacturing in China, although analysts say there is little danger of it sparking a more powerful workers’ rights movement.

“There is a small risk that such disputes could spiral out of control, but an even smaller risk that they will lead to wider political instability,” Eurasia Group analyst Michal Meidan wrote in a recent note.

The People’s Daily said, as China’s supply of young, cheap workers from the countryside tightens, the country must focus on improving skills and shifting to service jobs.

That will also require higher pay to spend on consumption and services, said the paper.

Another Reuters report said several Chinese current affairs magazines had eyed the recent worker unrest this week with Southern Breeze magazine giving a sympathetic account of the recent strikes.

“Industrial disputes have long been a major conflict in China’s market economy,” it quoted Chang Kai, professor of labour relations and law at Renmin University in Beijing, as saying.

“If the government remains uninvolved in establishing a basic system of labour relations, if it continues with the current labour policies and favours owners, then Chinese society will experience even bigger problems.”

Chang added that labour disputes have been growing by about 30% a year. Support for the government appeared limited among online posters who did discuss Wen’s comments.

“We really wish the premier needed to come out less to make speeches. Instead, lawmakers should make laws to give people equal rights, and then the government would just have to coordinate implementing them,” one wrote on popular Sina.com.

Western commentators have said it is all very well for consumers, particularly in the west, to be sympathetic to low-paid Chinese workers. But, if their pay goes up, the price of the cheap cars and consumer goods we buy by the container-load will also go up.

Once that happens, will we still be sticking up for those in the factories of the east?

COMMENT: BRAZIL: Chinese automakers have a long way to go