I am a language enthusiast mainly blogging about my experiences of learning Mandarin Chinese. Previously a journalist, I have written about social issues for the Guardian, the Independent, New Internationalist, Huffington Post, Equal Times and the Big Issue in the North, among other titles.
The dispute is one of the largest in China's recent history
Workers at a factory in southern China, which makes shoes for Nike
and Adidas, have entered their second week of industrial action in one of the
largest labour disputes at a single enterprise in recent history.
According to US based China Labor Watch (CLW) more than
30,000 employees have been on strike since 14 April at the Yue Yuen Industrial
(Holdings) Ltd factory
– the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic shoes –
in the city of Dongguan.
Despite threats from the factory’s management that staff
could be fired if they fail to return to work, workers said
industrial action would continue until demands for unpaid social insurance and
the right to pick their own union were met.
“Management is being too forceful about workers returning to
work, saying that beginning on the 24th, if workers swipe their cards and then
leave, they will be punished according to absenteeism rules,” one worker told
US based China Labour Watch (CLW).
“Workers can only carry out a work stoppage sitting at their
positions in the facilities in order to protest and demand a reasonable
response from management to workers’ demands.”
On Thursday, Dongguan City Union released an official document pledging its
support for the election of worker representatives and negotiation between
management and the Yue Yuen staff.
The document also contains official responses to worker
demands from the Bureau of Social Insurance, the Bureau of Human Resources, the
Housing Fund Management Centre, and Yue Yuen factory’s management.
In its statement, the Bureau of Social Insurance explained
that the factory must provide past unpaid social insurance to workers.
However, Yue Yuen management stated that the company
reserved the right to fire workers for three days’ absence from work.
On 22 April, two labour activists, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong,
who entered the factory to assist workers, were detained by local authorities.
They are yet to be released.
Kevin Slater, Programme Coordinator for CLW, told Equal
Times that the dispute was symbolic of the changing face of labour rights
in a country which is experiencing growing unrest as economic growth slows:
“The Yue Yuen strike is emblematic of a confluence of
factors that are increasingly defining labour politics in China. Policy changes have made
legally enshrined rights like social insurance more salient for workers.
“At the same time, brand companies are asking supplier
factories to meet evermore stringent price and time demands, to which the
factories ultimately adapt via suppressing labour costs, like social insurance.
The Yue Yuen strike also clarifies the need for effective
organization and representation of workers in the Chinese workplace.”
Hong Kong-based rights group, China Labour Bulletin (CLB),
recorded 202 labour disputes in the country during the first quarter of 2014 –
a year-on-year increase of more than 30 per cent.
Geoff Crothall, Communications Director of CLB, predicts
industrial action will continue to increase in the future as Chinese workers
become more aware of their rights.
“The Yue Yuen strike is important for two reasons: firstly
because of the sheer scale of the workers’ action. Up to 40,000 workers
participated in the strike, making it one of the largest at single enterprise
in recent memory.
“The strike highlights the increasingly important issue of
social insurance benefits. For much of the reform era in China, migrant workers in
particular simply did not have pensions or any kind of social safety net.
“In the last few years, however, workers have become more
aware of their rights to social security and are more determined to claim those
rights, particularly as they get older and start thinking about retirement. The
issue will only grow in importance in the future.”