In June 2010, well-known and respected Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang wrote in Global Viewpoint, “After 30 years of reform and spectacular economic growth, the cracks are beginning to show. The workers who 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 he country to demand not just their legal rights but a better standard of living, better working conditions and a better future.”

“What we are seeing in an intensive base of worker activism that reflects the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy and, more importantly, the failure of the government to tackle fundamental issues that give rise to these disputes in the first place: low pay, lack of any formal channels though which workers can voice their grievances and demands, and the consistent exclusion of migrant workers from education, health and social services in the cities.”

Labor Unrest in China

In China’s manufacturing heartland in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province there are around 10,000 labor disputes a year. Elsewhere workers often stage protest over unpaid wages, lay offs and other issues. Labor woes in China made headlines in 2010 year after Toyota, Honda and other foreign manufacturers were hit by a rare spate of strikes as workers demanded higher wages. Many ended up offering salary hikes. Once the disputes tapered off, a growing number of companies started looking at moving factories inland and offering migrant workers jobs nearer to their hometowns in the countryside, so as to improve employee morale.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Labor disputes are becoming a common feature of the Chinese economic landscape. Chinese workers are much more willing these days to defend their rights and demand higher wages, encouraged by recent policies from the central government aimed at protecting laborers and closing the income gap. Chinese leaders dread even the hint of Solidarity-style labor activism. But they have moved to empower workers by pushing through labor laws that signaled that central authorities would no longer tolerate poor workplace conditions, legal scholars and Chinese labor experts say.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 20, 2010]

Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang wrote: “As social conflicts have increased over the past 20 years, and rights violations have become more widespread, more and more victims have begun to speak out. They will no longer be silenced. It is no longer taboo for workers to use strike action to defend their rights. In the Pearl River Delta alone, strikes involving more than a thousand people occur on a daily basis, with many more protests on a smaller scale. At the end of last year, waves of strikes broke out amongst taxi drivers and teachers across the country. The teachers sought fairer pay terms, and in some cases succeeded in bringing the local government to the negotiating table. Twenty years ago, or even ten years, such an outcome - officials talking to strike leaders - would have been unimaginable.”

Research on Labor Unrest in China

The strikes at auto parts suppliers for Toyota and Honda in May and June of 2010, show laborers and migrant workers in China have gained a level of organizational sophistication and political awareness to make demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and in some cases, elections for union representatives. The following are some new books that shed some light on the matter. [Source: Mark W. Frazier, China Beat, July 2, 2010]

Foremost among these is “Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt” by Ching Kwan Lee (University of California Press, 2007) highly praised in a January 2010 London Review of Books article by Perry Anderson. . Mark W. Frazier of China Beat wrote: “Lee explores the moral economies and resistance of Chinese workers in two domains: first among the socialist working class in the state sector of the Northeast (the rustbelt), where the dismantling of the iron rice bowl brought an end to the social contract of job security and lifetime benefits, including housing. Lee compares the unmaking of the state socialist working class with the making of a new working class in the foreign-invested export sector of the South (the sunbelt). Here, migrant workers invoke the state’s new labor legislation and pursue claims to rights protection and equal citizenship, in the face of widespread legal and social discrimination stemming from the household registration system (hukou).”

In both the sunbelt and the rustbelt, protests remain highly cellularized, or confined to groups of workers from the same factory who present to employers and local governments demands that are specific to their workplace, or their cohort within the factory (e.g., unpaid pensions, unpaid wages, overtime violations, etc.). This localized pattern of labor protest, and how it varies, is a common theme found throughout the field of Chinese labor. Scholars such as Elizabeth Perry have shown how fragmentation, rather than class formation, both facilitates labor protest and influences how the state connects with and controls labor movements and their leadership. William Hurst’s “The Chinese Worker After Socialism” (Cambridge University Press, 2009) offers a regional account to this story of working class segmentation, showing how laid-off workers and their collective action is based on the political economy of different regions of China. Like Lee, Hurst provides illuminating details from interviews and fieldwork among laid-off workers who invoke different patterns of collective action and political symbols to press their demands.

China Hit by Labour Unrest as Global Slowdown Bites

In November 2011 AFO reported: China's manufacturing heartland has been hit by large-scale strikes in recent weeks, as an increasingly demanding workforce faces off with employers struggling with high costs and falling exports. Thousands of workers in factories in the southern province of Guangdong have gone on strike in recent days, protesting over low salaries, wage cuts or tough conditions, and triggering a strong police response and some clashes. [Source: Marianne Barriaux, AFP, November 26, 2011]

The unrest comes as China's exports and manufacturing activity weakens, hit by falling demand due to economic woes in Europe and the United States -- both crucial markets for the export-driven economy. "When orders and profits decline and costs of business increase for manufacturers... their first instinct is to pass those costs on to the workers," said Geoffrey Crothall, editor of the China Labour Bulletin. He said many factories in Guangdong were cutting back on lucrative overtime, bonuses and benefits for their workers, even as living costs remain high. "That's why we are seeing workers much more willing to go out on strike and protest," he told AFP, adding that the recent bout of unrest was the most intense since a series of strikes in the summer of 2010.

In early November more than 7,000 workers went on strike at a factory in Guangdong making New Balance, Adidas and Nike shoes, clashing with police in a protest over layoffs and wage cuts. In Shenzhen, the manufacturing metropolis that borders Hong Kong, more than 400 female workers at a bra factory downed tools to demand higher wages.

Strikes in China

Strikes are illegal. Strike leaders can be imprisoned. Still they occur. They seem to be occurring more these days as workers see increasing wealth around them and realize how exploited the are. Even though few workers are unionized in the Western sense of the word they can organize by contacting one another with cell phones.

In some cases there is so little communication between workers and management that workers feel that going on strike or engaging in some other disruptive activity is the only way for them to have their concerns addressed.

In November 2004, workers at the Shanlin Technology factory near Guangzhou went on strike demanding higher overtime pay and more time off. The workers returned to work a day after receiving assurances that they would get two days off a month and an increase of overtime pay from 12 cents to 36 cents an hour.

In April 2005, workers at Uniden Electronic Products plant, the Shenzhen-based Japanese manufacturer, went on strike. They demanded a raise, better living facilities, less overtime and a union. The strike was put down by quickly hiring new workers to take the place of those who had gone on strike. Strike leaders disappeared, presumably to jail

The mostly female workers at Uniden had gone on strike in December 2004 reportedly after overhearing a Japanese manager tell a Chinese manager that workers would be foolish to accept the terms of a new contract. Uniden makes cell phones and products that are sold at Wal-Mart and other places.

See Honda, Toyota, Foxconn and Truckers Strike (Under Transportation)

Labor Protests in China

Demonstrations have been held across China to protest poor working conditions, layoffs and factory closings. They have been staged by unpaid textile workers in Sichuan, by coal miners who had their wages cut in southeastern Jiangxi province, and by retired auto plant employees in Beijing demanding their unpaid pensions. In Guangzhou, workers that claimed they had not been paid by a construction company dangled from 40-meter-high cranes until a settlement was reached.

Workers who have been laid off and pensioners denied what is owed them routinely block roads and take over factories until their concerns are addressed. Many local government have an emergency fund that they can use to give out money to avoid a big protest. Also on hand are hundreds of policemen and militia members armed with riot shields and electric prods.

Protest have been staged by workers over China’s membership to the WTO, the activities of corrupt officials and the fact when factory assets are sold the factory bosses profit handsomely while the workers get nothing and often lose not only their jobs but benefits promised them. In the industrial city of Liaoyang in Liaoning Province in the northeast, 30,000 workers from 20 different factories participated in strikes and protest over unemployment and closing down factories. Large protest have also been held un Daqing, a major oil production area in the northeast.

The government seems to be more tolerant of these protest and rarely turns to violence to solve them. In most cases there are few arrests, an effort is made keep news about the protest from leaking out and concessions are quietly made with workers. In many cases, it seems, Beijing has realized that the workers concerns are valid and ignoring them is only going to stir up animosity towards the government.

Labor Revolts in China

Workers have staged revolts over corruption, unpaid wages and pensions and dangerous working conditions. According to government statistics the number of work-related disputes increased 14-fold between 1992 and 1999. In 1999, there were more than 120,000 disputes, a 29 percent increase from 1998.

In 2000 in Chengdu, hundreds of workers marched on an army-run factory fear that they would lose their jobs. Near the industrial city of Liaoyang, the same year, workers rioted for three days, burning cars and smashing windows, after a state-run molybdenum mine was shut down.

In the early 2000s, 30,000 protestors gathered in the street in Liaoyang to protest unpaid wages, missing pension funds and corrupt officials who stripped factories of their assets. The demonstration was brought to halt when government officials said they would listen to the worker’s grievances. A dozen men and women emerged from the crowd. They met with government representatives who promised to address their concerns if they called off the protest. The protests were stopped. Instead of making changes, the government arrested the protest leaders.

In spring of 2004, a strike at the Taiwanese-owned shoe maker, Stella International, in Dongguan near Guangzhou, turned violent. At one point more than 500 workers sacked company offices, severely injuring on executive. Police arrived and took away the ring leaders. The workers were upset about the food in the cafeteria and an error in which vacation time was docked from their wages.

In July 2005, a strike at the Futai Textile Factory in Xizhou, outside Guangzhou, became a violent riot after a motorcycle was set on fire. Some 3,000 furious workers pelted buses and cars with rocks, bricks and watermelon seeds, undeterred by the tear gas fired at them by police. The workers were demanding higher pay and upset about the reduction in wages because the factory slowdown and the blocking of ain attempt to form an independent labor union.

In January 2006, workers at a bankrupt factory scheduled to be closed down in Chengdu protested the loss of their jobs and battled with police for three days and took a manager hostage.

In June 2007, thousands of workers — most of them women — at a plastic Christmas tree factory in Shenzhen clashed with police after a 10-day strike over long working hours and the laying off of long-term workers without any compensation.

Toy Factory Riot

Half of China’s toy exporters, which exported nearly $8 billion worth of goods in 2007, went out of business in the first seven months of 2008.

In November 2008, hundreds of workers laid off from the Kai Da toy company rioted in Dongguan, Guangdong Province over a dispute about severance pay. They protesters clashed with police and attacked the offices of a toy factory executive. The Guangzhou Daily reported: Rioters “smashed one police vehicle and four police patrol cars...fought with security guards...and entered factory offices, broke windows and destroying equipment.”

A 36-year-old machinist told the Los Angeles Times, “We saw the police beating five workers with sticks, several of them unconscious...Then many workers rushed out and surrounded them, Later there were thousands of people there. They smashed police cars, doors and computers.” After the protests workers received about $900 in severance pay.

4,000 Chinese Workers Strike at South-Korean-Owned Factory in 2011

In June 2011, More than 4,000 workers at the South Korean-owned Simone handbag factory in Guangzhou -- an area struck by migrant unrest in recent weeks -- went on strike to demand better pay and protest against what they say is a "harsh working environment", the South China Morning Post reported. [Source: AFP, June 22, 2011]

People working at the plant -- which produces handbags for high-end brands such as DKNY, Burberry, Kate Spade and Coach -- at the Hualong plant in Meishan village halted production. A heavy police presence was seen outside the plant, with workers claiming that at least one woman and one man were beaten up by local security guards. A photo published in the Hong Kong-based daily showed a large number of workers clad in blue uniforms in a standoff with police. A factory operator told AFP that most of the workers had returned to their posts a few days after the protest began.

The workers complained they were forced to stand for 12 hours daily and given toilet breaks once every four hours, according to the Post. They also said they were banned from consuming water or using washrooms except during breaks. "The Korean management treats us [as] less than human beings. The male managers walk into female toilets any time they please; we can't contain our anger any more," a 26-year-old unnamed male worker told the paper. According to the report, workers can earn up to 1,900 yuan ($290) a month, depending on their hours.

Discontent among the millions of migrant workers in the region has mounted in weeks before th protest. Several hundred workers at a watch factory in Chang'an, part of the vast factory city of Dongguan close to Hong Kong, went on strike last week in protest at long working hours. A couples weeks earlier riots erupted in Xintang, near Guangzhou, after rumours that police had beaten to death a street hawker from the southwestern province of Sichuan. Nineteen people were arrested. Also in June, hundreds of migrant workers clashed with police in Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong, after one of them was wounded in a knife attack in a dispute over wages.

Strikes at Honda and Toyota Plants in China

In June 2010 labor troubles shut down key factories for Honda and Toyota in China. Workers at the parts factories for the Japanese carmakers demanded higher wages, complaining their low pay was way out line with profits that companies were making at their expense.

Chang Kai, a labor law professor at Renmin University in Beijing told Reuters, “The automotive sector in China for foreign companies, is highly profitable, but there hasn’t been an appropriate scale of company profits and workers’ earnings...Strikes used in an industry like this can have copy-cat effects . Workers think, “If you can settle your problems by striking, why can’t I?” This effect may continue unless he basic problems are dealt with.”

A highly-publicized strike occurred at an auto parts factory for a subsidiary of Honda in Foshan in Guangdong Province that produces transmissions, mufflers and exhaust systems. The 1,850 workers at the plant demanded a pay increase from $225 a month to $300 or $375, halting production at four assembly plants that produce hundreds of thousands of Civics, Accords and Fits a year. The strike lasted two weeks. There were some scuffles between Honda workers and a group of people who claimed to representatives of a workers unions. The strike ended after workers were promised a pay increase of $54. Workers at other Honda plants were given similar 24 percent pay raises.

A similar strike occurred at a plant for Toyoda Gosei, a plastic parts in Tianjin, which shut down a Toyota plant in Guangdong Province capable of produce 360,000 vehicles a year. The 1,300 workers at the Toyoda Gosei plant were only paid $191 to $230 a month. The three -day strike ended when the workers had the salaries boosted to $260 a month.

Striking Workers at Chinese Honda Plant

The Honda workers at the Foshan plant mostly did monotonous, assembly line tasks 12-hour days, six days a week. In addition to their pay, they also received free lodging in rooms that slept four to six in bunk beds. They also get free lunches, subsidized breakfasts for the equivalent of 30 cents and dinners for about $1.50. The wages they earned were earned without overtime and not much overtime was offered at the plant. [Source: Keith Bradsher and David Barboza, New York Times, May 28, 2010]

Most of the striking workers were in their late teens or early 20s and said their goal was more money, not a larger political agenda. “If they give us 800 renminbi a month, we’ll go back to work right away,” one young man told the New York Times, describing a pay increase that would add about $117 a month to an average pay that is now around $150 monthly. He said he had read on the Internet of considerably higher wages at other factories in China and expected Honda to match them with an immediate pay increase.

According to New York Times: “The profile of striking workers seems to run more along the lines of slightly bookish would-be engineers — perhaps without the grades or money to attend college — rather than political activists. Besides their low wages, the workers seem focused on issues like the factory’s air-conditioning not being cool enough, and the unfairness of having to rise from their dormitories as early as 5:30 for a 7 a.m. shift.”

Workers at the Honda factory dormitory told the New York Times that the official union at the factory was not representing them but was serving as an intermediary between them and management. They also said that some senior workers, known as team leaders, had allied themselves with management. But they insisted that the rank-and-file workers were solidly in favor of walkout.

Impact of the Honda Strike in China

Toyota factory
The Chinese government seems to have allowed the strikes to occur (goons from the government -controlled trade unions were called off) seemingly because foreign companies were involved — particularly Japanese ones in a country where anti-Japanese sentiment still run high as a legacy of World War II — and it provided a convenient outlet to let off some steam. The strikes occurred at a time when foreign investors needed China more than China needed them and there weren’t deep concerns in China about scaring them off.

The Foshan strike was widely covered by print and television reporters from state-controlled media across the country that is until one morning when all the Chinese reporters suddenly disappeared as the government, apparently nervous, suddenly imposed without explanation a blanket ban on domestic media coverage of the strike. Authorities have been leery of letting the media report on labor disputes, fearing that it could encourage workers elsewhere to rebel. The new permissiveness, however temporary, coincides with growing sentiment among some officials and economists that Chinese workers deserve higher wages for their role in the country’s global export machine. [Source: Keith Bradsher and David Barboza, New York Times, May 28, 2010]

The strike occurred amidst a major political debate in China on how to deal with the nation’s growing income gap, and the need to do something about wages. Many have argued that without higher incomes, hundreds of millions of Chinese will be unable to play their part in the domestic consumer spending boom on which this nation hopes to base its next round of economic growth. But If wages do rise, that could bring higher prices for Western consumers for a wide range of goods.

China's Trade Union’s Involvement in the Honda Strike in Foshan

When workers at a Honda car-parts plant in Foshan went on strike in the summer of 2010, Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “the party-controlled ACFTU played no role in the stoppage — which set off a rash of labor unrest — and didn’t even know it was coming. Kong rushed to Foshan from nearby Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to figure out what was going on. Getting 1,850 Honda workers back to work took nearly two weeks of testy talks, scuffles and a hefty pay raise. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post , April 28 2011]

After helping to secure a 24 percent pay increase for Honda workers in Foshan as part of last year’s strike settlement, Kong took part last month in wage negotiations that got them a further raise of about 30 percent. Shuttling between Guangzhou and Foshan, he has led a drive to reinvigorate the Honda plant’s previously passive official union and pressed management on a host of issues, including the quality of food in the canteen and complaints of allergic reactions to certain chemicals. Takayuki Fujii, a spokesman for Honda in Beijing, said that the Foshan plant always offered good conditions but that improvements had been “accelerated” since the strike.

When talks to end the Honda strike stalled the ACFTU showed little sympathy for workers and joined with the local labor bureau to try to force them back to work. Fighting broke out as officials tried to videotape strikers and screamed at them through bullhorns. Kong said the strikers had already secured a pay raise and should have returned to work, but he conceded that the clashes had only alienated workers and didn’t help resolve the dispute.

After that Kong has worked to repair the damage by beefing up the ACFTU’s presence in the factory and making it more responsive to workers’ concerns. But Honda workers still haven’t secured their principal demand, aside from more money: the right to choose who heads the factory union branch. Still in charge is a Honda manager who makes 10 times the amount earned by the workers he is supposed to represent. He takes instructions not from workers but from the local branch of the ACFTU, which operates out of a government office.

How much headway the official union has made in regaining workers’ trust is difficult to gauge. Honda, supported by the ACFTU, bars employees from talking to the media without permission, which it declined to grant. Workers who agreed to talk, on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, gave mixed reviews. One dismissed the union federation as a “tour agency” that does little but arrange company excursions. Another said it still just relays management decisions. But others said they now have a little more faith that it will stand up for them. “Before the strike, I did not know much about the union and didn’t think it would help us much,” said one, speaking in a company-provided dormitory above a shopping center. “Now I think it can give us some help.”

Image Sources: China Labor Watch

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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