China's workers are more victims than perpetrators of violence

The death of a senior manager at a steel plant in northeastern China at the hands of angry workers last week, and the mass brawl at a toy factory in Shaoguan last month between Uighur and Han employees that left two people dead, have both become major international news stories.

And while it is beneficial for the media spotlight to fall on too often neglected labour issues in China, focusing on these violent events does present a rather skewed version of reality, especially when it is the workers who are portrayed as the violent party.

The reality is that workers are far more likely to be the victims of violence, harassment, intimidation and abuse than the perpetrators of it. For example, in December last year, an elderly tailor from Chongqing was illegally detained and tortured for five days at a remote mountain farmhouse simply because he was campaigning for the restoration of his and his co-workers' pension rights.

Even claiming wages from the boss can result in violence. Last summer, a group of migrant workers at a food processing plant in Shandong were surrounded and threatened by security guards and hired thugs when they sought payment of several months' wages. One of the workers was beaten and threatened with a knife while the factory boss reportedly yelled:

Kill him! Kill him! Kill him and bury him here! Make sure that not one of them gets out of here, forget about their wages.

The majority of workers however suffer routine, low-level abuse and harassment, which can gradually accumulate until they are forced to respond. It is important to note however that only very rarely do these worker protests escalate into violence. Of the 100 incidents surveyed in CLB's new research report on the workers'movement in China, only five involved attacks on company property or management personnel. In the vast majority of cases, workers staged relatively peaceful strikes and protests, blocking roads or the factory gates, and holding demonstrations or sit-ins in public areas.

For some disillusioned workers however, the pressure of this daily abuse is too much to bear and they resort to extreme measures. On 21 July, a 24-year-old graduate working at a moldings factory in Dongguan jumped from his fourth floor dormitory after being refused time off work by management. In his suicide note, Liao Shikai wrote:

I started work at this factory in December last year. From April up until today, I've had to work overtime everyday without one day's rest. I am very tired. There is nothing happening at the factory today and I really want some time off but the foreman did not agree and we got into a fight. This factory really drives people to their deaths. It is Liqun Moldings Factory that has killed me.


Manager killed during protest over steel plant privatization

Elderly tailor cheated out of pension by the government; detained and tortured after protesting

Migrant workers cheated out of 230,000 yuan – harassed and beaten by thugs

Going it Alone: The Workers' Movement in China (2007-2008)

Graduate attempts suicide after being forced to work three months without a day off

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