Recent Worker Actions in China

July 2, 2010

In recent weeks, reports have appeared in Chinese and international media outlets highlighting strikes at enterprises throughout China, many at foreign-owned enterprises, and other incidents involving workers, including suicides. Chinese and international journalists, academics, and activists have penned essays and articles attempting to explain the causes of the recent spate of worker incidents. Some of these pieces have taken an interpretive angle, bringing out themes—such as the Chinese government's denial of the right to free association, the rights of migrant workers, and changing attitudes of a new generation of workers—that have persisted in China since economic reforms began in 1978.

During the past month, Chinese and international media and non-governmental organizations reported on at least 12 separate incidents—from a succession of strikes to suicides at a factory compound—at various Chinese enterprises, mostly foreign-owned, that garnered attention in China and around the world.

  1. Starting on May 21, 2010, about 1,900 workers at a Honda-owned auto-parts factory in Foshan city, Guangdong province, went on strike to demand higher wages, as detailed in a May 28 New York Times article.

  2. On June 1, authorities deployed up to 3,000 police officers "to break up a two-week-long strike at a former state-owned cotton mill in Pingdingshan, Henan [province]," according to a June 4 China Labour Bulletin report. Workers there reportedly demanded higher pay, paid annual leave, and a "fair share of proceeds" from the enterprise's restructuring.

  3. On June 3, about 900 workers at the Japanese-owned Brother Industries Company in Xi'an city, Shaanxi province, went on strike to demand higher wages and better benefits, according to a June 10 Radio Free Asia report.

  4. On June 6, "many hundreds" of workers at the Tieshu Group factory in Suizhou city, Hubei province, blocked a nearby intersection, protesting against management's reported failure to address issues such as pension disputes and the sale of the factory, according to a June 6 Web posting on the Web site Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch.

  5. On June 7, striking workers at a Taiwanese-owned rubber factory in Kunshan city, Jiangsu province, clashed with police, according to a June 11 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article. The SCMP article said "[s]cuffles were also reported during a strike at a Taiwanese-owned sports goods factory" in Jiujiang city, Jiangxi province, on June 6.

  6. On June 6, a few hundred workers at the Taiwanese-owned Merry Electronics factory in Shenzhen blocked the factory entrance in the morning, and "the crowd eventually grew to more than one thousand, spilling out on to the main road," where they held up banners "demanding higher pay and less strenuous work hours," as a June 8 China Labour Bulletin report noted.

  7. On June 8, a Honda spokesperson said in a Wall Street Journal article that "workers at Foshan Fengfu Autoparts walked off the job…, paralyzing production at the plant owned by Japan's Yutaka Giken, a 70%-Honda-owned subsidiary," which produced exhaust pipes for the Japanese car company. Like the strikers at the other Honda plant, the workers were seeking wage increases.

  8. A June 11 Ming Pao article, citing information from the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, chronicled the spread of strikes to other Chinese provinces, including a June 9 incident where about 2,000 workers demanded the management at the Japanese-owned Zongbao Electronics Company in Shanghai to offer higher wages; and, in Zhuhai city, Guangdong province, up to 1,000 workers at a U.S.-owned electronics factory went on strike on June 10 with the same demand.

  9. On June 11, strikes took place at a third Honda-affiliated factory; located in Zhongshan city, Guangdong province, this factory produced car locks for Honda. The South China Morning Post detailed in a report that the workers "challenged managers" and demanded higher pay and the right to form independent unions.

Unofficial reports suggest that the striking workers' primary demand is higher wages. These reports also indicate that many of them decided to participate in the strikes after hearing co-workers who had worked at other factories recount similar situations at their previous places of employment—namely, low wage levels and subsequent successful attempts to force managements to raise wages through work stoppages. In other words, the spread of the strikes seemed to have resulted from a "copy-cat chain" of events inspired by previous successes rather than an organized labor movement (Reuters, July 1).

At the same time, journalists, commentators, and academics in China and abroad have also sought additional explanations for these events. Some explanations have pointed to labor issues that have existed since China's reform and opening in 1978, such as the denial of the right to free association, the changing attitudes of a new generation of workers, and migrant workers' difficulties in adjusting to urban factory life.

A New Generation of Workers

One recent study by the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions found that China's new generation of migrant workers, unlike their parents, have higher expectations with regard to wages and labor rights as they struggle to transition into urban life. In a June 13 essay titled "Silent Lambs No More," Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Week) discusses the different experiences and mindset of a new generation of Chinese workers, defined as those born after 1980 or 1990, that set them apart from the older workers:

A new generation of Chinese workers is finally no longer silent … China's GDP had already multiplied several times … the post-90s generation of migrant workers discovered that they are making about the same amount of money as their father's generation 20 years before. As such, this third generation of workers feels increasingly hopeless, and finds it necessary to use strikes as a method to fight for reasonable treatment.

Another June 13 Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Week) article indicates that the so-called "post-80s" and "post-90s" new generation of migrant workers are at the forefront of the strikes. Reportedly, there are about 100 million young workers in China's 170 million migrant workers pool.

China's Agricultural Minister, Han Changfu, in a February 1 People's Daily essay, observes additional distinguishing characteristics that set the post-90s workers apart from the previous generations, pointing out that many of them have never laid down roots, are better educated, are the only child in the family, and are more likely to demand equal access to employment and social services—and even equal political rights—in the cities.

The Lack of Genuine Worker Representation

Chinese workers still are not guaranteed the right to organize into independent unions. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is China's only legal trade union, and it is required by the Trade Union Law to "uphold the leadership of the Communist Party." Because one of the ACFTU's priorities is to organize and mobilize "vast numbers of workers to make contributions to the sound and rapid development of the economy," and to foster "harmony in labour relations" so that such development may take place, the vast majority of "trade unions" in enterprises effectively remain under the de facto control of management.

Various experts have pointed out that Chinese workers are not asking for the formation of independent trade unions per se; rather, strikers are calling for unions to act more independently within the confines of Chinese law. Anita Chan, an academic who studies China's labor relations at the University of Technology in Sydney, writes in a June 18 China Daily commentary that the Chinese workers' demand for genuine union representation is not the same as a push for alternative unions. While acknowledging that the government-run ACFTU "has a herculean task ahead if it wants to fulfill its assigned role of representing workers," Chan says that Chinese workers "are willing to become members of the ACFTU … [given that] the Honda workers who went on strike now want to hold a new election to their [ACFTU] union branch committee." To start, Chan suggests that the ACFTU should:

Do away with the "fake unions"… [the ones] assigned by the local governments, whose paramount interest is to attract foreign investment. … These governments now rent out land to companies and appoint a few local union-ignorant people to run the trade union offices. … The local trade union offices should be put under the jurisdiction of the upper-level union instead of local governments. The ACFTU should allow workers to elect their representatives to their workplace union committees, too, as has happened in a very modest number of firms. Only then can the union branches demonstrably represent workers' interests rather [than] that [of] the employers' or governments'.

The lack of genuine labor representation is well-documented. A China Labour Bulletin representative told the Toronto Star in a June 8 article that China's state-run labor unions "will rarely, if ever, stand four-square with workers." And in a more extreme example, the "Silent Lambs No More" article in Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Week) recounts the views of one striking worker who said that China's existing state-run labor unions "are not as good as organized criminals," for at least "organized criminals will provide you with service after taking your money; conversely, the state-controlled labor unions "demand that [workers] pay the dues and still come back to oppress them."

In recent months, however, the ACFTU has appeared to be more willing to address the issue of worker representation. In December 2009, Zhang Jianguo, the director of the ACFTU's Collective Contracts Department, admitted that "in mitigating labour disputes, the fundamental issue is to establish a collective bargaining system that would allow labour disputes to be managed and resolved within the enterprise. From this point of view, collective bargaining is the route we must take in defusing conflict and developing harmonious labour relations," according to a December 16, 2009, article (via Civil Society Net) in Liaowang magazine.

A January 5, 2010, China Labour Bulletin report on collective bargaining notes comments made by Han Dongfang, a well-known labor activist and Director of the China Labour Bulletin, a year earlier during the financial crisis:

The long-term trend is clear. The only way the government can prevent greater social conflict is by giving more power to the workers not less. If workers have the right to negotiate as equals with the boss the chances of disputes turning violent will be greatly reduced. If on the other hand, the government ignores workers' rights and gives the boss free rein, the consequences will be very serious.

As for the recent spate of worker incidents, Han, writing in a June 17 International Herald Tribune editorial, reiterates the central theme of his previous argument that China is now in "an intensive phase of worker activism"—activism that resulted from the government's failure to address the core issues: "low pay, the lack of formal channels for worker grievances and demands, and the exclusion of migrant workers from education, health care and social services in the cities."

Worker Suicides and the Trappings of Urban Factory Life

In the first five months of 2010, 12 workers committed suicide at a factory compound in Shenzhen city, Guangdong province, belonging to the Taiwanese-owned electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known as Foxconn, according to a May 27 Radio Free Asia report. The causes of worker suicides should not be oversimplified. According to Leslie T. Chang, the author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, to boil down the spate of suicides at Foxconn's Shenzhen factories (see 1 above) to "a protest against working conditions is to deny a worker's complexity and humanity." Chang analyzes the suicides by considering the realities of a model for development that brings hundreds of millions of workers to factories far from home. She writes in a June 13 New York Times blog posting that factories are places where "[y]oung people [are] living away from home for the first time" and trying to get accustomed to a world of "fleeting relationships and crushing loneliness."

Generally speaking, factories "derive their economies of scale" from "1) knowing where to find all the 18-year-old girls, 2) convincing them to stay in factory dormitories, 3) training them to put the parts together, and 4) ensuring that no one takes too many toilet breaks," according to Andy Xie, an economist, writing in a June 7 Caixin essay. Xie states that "[l]abor management as a core competitive advantage in East Asia began in Japan" at the start of the Meiji era (1867) when the government "looked to the military for a role model," which had turned "farm boys into soldiers." As a result, "factory uniforms, morning exercises, company loyalty indoctrination, etc., thus became unique characteristics of Japanese factories"—a model that many managers in Taiwan, a former Japanese colony, adapted. Foxconn is a Taiwanese-owned company operating on the mainland that reportedly follows the so-called "military model," and runs the factory where the suicides took place. The Global Times reported on May 24 that nine labor advocates who embedded themselves in the Foxconn factory as workers later published an investigative report accusing the management of using "military style management" in which "managers always scold workers." The Global Times also paraphrased the leading advocate who wrote the report as saying that "some workers work 120 hours in overtime each month in order to earn a decent living."

For more information on China's labor laws and other issues relating to Chinese workers, please see Section II—Worker Rights in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report.