China Daily USA: The two faces of strikes in China

China Labour Bulletin Executive Director Han Dongfang is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

1 July 2010

BEIJING — At a Honda engine-gear factory in southern China, a two-week strike by workers at the end of last month ended amicably when the company agreed to a 24 percent increase in wages and conditions.

At the Pingmian Textile Group factory in central China, a two-week strike by workers also ended after the company agreed to a 25 percent increase in wages – but not before local police launched a crackdown on the protesters and detained more than 20 strikers.

Among those arrested was Wang Wei, 48, a mechanic who has been working for Pingmian, in Pingdingshan, Henan province in Central China, for almost 30 years. Ironically, he wasn’t even on the picket line.

“I saw my mother collapsing and went to try to see what was wrong with her,” Wang said. “But police thought I was one of the strike leaders and detained me for eight days.” Wang was released and went back to work in the factory.

His mother, in her middle 60s, had been among the protesters from Pingmian who were taking action because their 600 yuan ($89) a month wage had not been increased for years, and that retired workers hadn’t been receiving any pension, accumulation fund or medical insurance from the company for three years.

An anonymous netizen wrote on a website that other workers win better wages through strikes, “but we were detained”.

Some experts believe the difference in response between the Honda and Pingmian strikes is that the former is a joint venture and the latter is owned by the State. Indeed, the Honda strike was just one of several that’s been taking place in China in recent weeks.

Liu Kaiming, the executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, said the government should remain neutral whenever there’s friction between management and workers.

“Local governments in southern China generally realize that a crackdown is not the right measure for a labor dispute,” Liu said.

“It’s one reason the Honda strike could reach an agreement on salary increases. Local governments in inner China should learn from this.

“The only thing local government should do during strike is to keep a good social order, and help the two parities to build a more efficient communication mechanism.”

Liu said that in some places in China, despite the fact there is no specific law that defines strikes as illegal, local police would tend to arrest the leaders under criminal charges.

With spontaneous strikes becoming more frequent in China, experts are questioning the role of unions and suggested the government should be more tolerant about the action. In many cases, such strikes are not organized by unions, but by workers unable to tolerate the working conditions and low wages.

“Most social hostility was generated by the unfair distribution of income and some government officials’ inappropriate behaviors,” said Zhong Dajun, director of Dajun Center for Economic Observation and Studies.

“A spontaneous strike is a good way to express their anger caused by these social problems.”

Zhong said such anger can turn to social hostility if the government or company continues to crack down on strikes and detain strike leaders.

“People might take extreme hostile actions towards the weaker group, such as the series school attacks,” he said. Earlier this year, 16 children were killed in six brutal attacks over a two-month period at various schools throughout China.

Zhong said strikes are inevitable because workers have been constrained for a very long time but have fewer representatives from the union.

“The strikes means the union system has lost its capability to mediate any dispute between workers and employers,” Zhong said. “Most unions simply follow the local government and are running dogs of capitalists.”

Mary Gallagher, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, believes the situation of Chinese workers could be only fundamentally changed when they are well represented. “Unions are usually friendly and sympathetic with management,” Gallagher was quoted by Wall Street Journal as saying.

Chang-Hee Lee, from the International Labour Organization, said local governments are likely to take different attitudes and approaches to strikes because of the absence of clear rules.

“As far as no violence is involved, the government needs to approach strike as a purely economic phenomenon where sellers and buyers of labor have a dispute over proper price and conditions of work,” Lee said.

He said the government may need to introduce effective rules to settle disputes with a view to promoting collective bargaining.

Han Dongfang, a labor activist from Hong Kong, said the mainland should introduce collective bargaining and strike laws.
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