Workers Demonstrate in Various Industries and Locations in Late 2011 and Early 2012

April 27, 2012

From late fall 2011 through early 2012, Chinese and international media outlets reported on a series of strikes and demonstrations in at least 10 provincial-level areas in China that some international news sources and labor rights advocates characterized as the most significant series of worker actions since the summer of 2010. While the exact number of worker actions that occurred during this period is difficult to determine, they involved a variety of industries, and recent statements from the Chinese government reflected concern over social strife as a result of labor disputes. In some cases, workers demonstrated in response to cost-cutting measures that managers took, reportedly designed to pass the costs of slowed macroeconomic activity on to workers. In some of those cases, workers said their motivations for demonstrating included the failure of management to consult with them in the implementation of cost-cutting measures. In other cases, workers reportedly demonstrated in response to wider systemic abuses and other labor-related grievances, such as excessive overtime demands and abusive management practices. Management and local officials in some cases reportedly used force against or detained demonstrating workers while seeking to put a stop to these disputes.

Demonstrations Emerge in Late 2011 and Early 2012

Chinese and international labor rights advocates, academics, and journalists reported on a series of labor demonstrations from early November 2011 through early 2012 that some international news sources and labor rights advocates characterized as the most significant since a series of labor demonstrations in the summer of 2010 (see, e.g., Time, 25 November 11; Agence France-Presse, via Google, 26 November 11). The exact number of demonstrations that occurred during this period is difficult to determine, but the demonstrations reportedly involved a number of industries—including manufacturing, transportation, construction, and retail—and statements released by the Chinese government during this period indicated a heightened sense of anxiety over increased social strife as a result of labor disputes. For example, in a February 15, 2012, statement, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) described "harmonious labor relations" as an "urgent and important political duty that we must grasp." The MOHRSS also emphasized the importance of reducing "contradictions and disputes" in the area of labor relations and solving the "weak" and "insufficient capacity" of grassroots labor relations work.

Cost-Cutting Measures Motivate Some Recent Labor Demonstrations

Chinese and international media reports indicated that workers in at least 10 provincial-level areas, ranging from China's east coast to Sichuan province, in western China, launched demonstrations after managers took cost-cutting measures reportedly designed to curtail the effects of decreased macroeconomic activity. China's manufacturing and export sectors recorded a significant decline in activity in the end of 2011 and early 2012 (Xinhua, 1 December 11 and 10 February 12), and weakened export and manufacturing activity combined with rising labor and material costs reportedly led many manufacturers and retailers to reduce expenses in an attempt to supplement declining profits. In a number of the cases reported on during this period, managers passed the costs of these reductions on to workers in the form of reduced wages and cutbacks on overtime, bonuses, and benefits (see, e.g., Financial Times, 23 November 11, subscription required; Agence France-Presse, via Google News, 26 November 11). In some cases, workers initiated large-scale protests in response to these reductions, which also exacerbated longstanding labor concerns related to wage levels, unpaid wages and compensation, working conditions, and labor-management relations. For instance, workers protested over announced reductions in year-end bonuses at the Alei Siti auto parts factory in Guangzhou city, Guangdong province, in late December 2011, according a December 28, 2011, China Labor Watch (CLW) article and a January 3, 2012, Radio Free Asia article. Factory management claimed reductions in year-end bonuses were the result of a decline in production orders, an assertion disputed by workers. CLW stated that, prior to the reductions, workers had longstanding grievances related to long workdays and a demanding work schedule, which may have been aggravated by the bonus reductions and contributed to the emergence of the strike.

Workers Cite Lack of Consultations in Some Cases

In some cases, workers reportedly organized demonstrations in response to management's failure to engage in consultations with workers prior to company mergers, wage adjustments, or manufacturing relocation. For instance, "several thousand" workers reportedly took their annual leave simultaneously on November 14, 2011, in a coordinated action at PepsiCo bottling plants in at least five Chinese cities in reaction to Taiwan-owned food and beverage company Tingyi Holding Corporation's takeover of PepsiCo (Economic Observer, 14 November 11; Xinhua, 15 November 11; China Labour Bulletin, 15 November 11). Workers claimed PepsiCo failed to consult with them prior to the takeover and "demanded assurances that pay, benefits, and working conditions would not be eroded as a result of the takeover." Management reportedly planned to terminate worker contracts and ask workers to negotiate new contracts, and workers reportedly called on PepsiCo to pay compensation in the event that PepsiCo terminated the original contracts. In another case, approximately 7,000 workers reportedly protested at the Yue Cheng shoe factory in Dongguan city, Guangdong province, in November 2011 after management dismissed 18 mid-level managers and suspended overtime and performance bonuses without negotiating with workers in advance (China Labour Bulletin, 17 November 11; CLW, 18 November 11; Xinhua, 19 November, 2011). Factory management claimed these actions were the result of a significant decrease in production orders, but one manager alleged they were motivated by plans to relocate manufacturing facilities to Jiangxi province.

Variety of Grievances Motivate Some Recent Labor Demonstrations

Not all labor demonstrations during this period, however, emerged in opposition to the implementation of cost-cutting measures. Chinese and international media outlets also reported on demonstrations surfacing in response to systemic abuses and other labor-related grievances. Workers at demonstrations in a wide variety of locations reportedly protested low wage levels, abusive treatment by management, and unreasonable hour and overtime demands (see previously documented cases in the CECC 2011 Annual Report, p. 77). For instance, more than 400 workers at the Top Form Underwear Co., Ltd. factory in Shenzhen municipality, Guangdong province, reportedly demonstrated in late November 2011 over low wages, withholding of overtime wages, and unachievable production quotas, according to articles from Xinhua and CLW on November 22, 2011. Both reports stated factory management had previously been verbally abusive towards workers, as well.

Examples of Recent Labor Demonstrations

Recent cases of labor demonstrations from early November 2011 through early 2012 include the following:

  • On November 22, 2011, 1,000 workers reportedly went on strike at a Jingmo Electronics Corporation factory in Shenzhen in response to overtime demands by management and the decision to require mandatory overnight overtime shifts. Workers reportedly also had grievances concerning unsafe working conditions, mass layoffs of older workers, a lack of benefits, and verbal abuse by managers. (CLW, 23 November 11)
  • On November 28, 2011, taxi drivers in Liaocheng city, Shandong province, protested in response to government-instituted fare adjustments and problems relating to illegal taxi operations. Authorities reportedly forcibly took into custody several taxi drivers who were planning to petition, questioned them, and released them six hours later, after pressuring them to sign a pledge not to "cause trouble." (People's Daily, 12 December 11)
  • In late November 2011, more than 100 retail workers blockaded a British-owned Tesco in Jinhua city, Zhejiang province, in a protest over wages and layoff compensation terms. Workers at Tesco reportedly became concerned that the store would shut down earlier than previously stated and asked management to "pay them the overtime they were due and terminate their contracts so they would receive wages immediately." (Guardian, 30 November 11)
  • Starting on November 28, 2011, workers at Singapore-owned Hi-P International electronics factory in Shanghai went on strike over layoffs due to the company's decision to relocate manufacturing to Suzhou municipality, Jiangsu province. Workers demanded compensation for layoffs and accused the factory of violating labor standards including long workdays and unreasonable overtime demands. Workers claimed that public security officials beat some of them earlier during the protests. (Associated Press, via Huffington Post, 2 December 11; Reuters, 2 December 11; related CECC analysis)
  • In early January 2012, hundreds of migrant construction workers gathered at a highway construction firm's office in Hubei province, demanding 200 million yuan (approximately US$32 million) in unpaid wages. (China Internet Information Center, via Shanghai Daily, 21 January 12)

For more information on conditions for workers in China, see Section II—Worker Rights in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.