SCMP: Strikers feel force of Tianjin's heavier hand

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Ng Tze-wei in Tianjin
June 25, 2010

As Honda workers in Guangdong savour their pay rises gained through strategy and persistence, strikes at Toyota supplier factories in Tianjin last week appeared much less organised and crumbled at the early intervention of police and officials.

From the workers' perspectives, Guangdong and Tianjin could not be more different in terms of the way the strikes were handled and their effectiveness. Even within the same company, strikes at Toyota parts suppliers in the southern manufacturing hub this week led to a three-day production halt at Guangqi Toyota, while similar strikes in the northeastern municipality held out only long enough to delay production at FAW Toyota by one day.

The impact of the strikes is clear. Honda Motor's production fell 37 per cent last month and sales dropped 10 per cent from a year earlier.

Strikes broke out last week at two Tianjin plants owned by Toyoda Gosei, a Toyota affiliate, but workers resumed work at both sites within days amid conflicting information: management said settlements had been reached, while a handful of workers at both factories said negotiations were continuing.

When asked how the talks were carried out, none of the workers had a clear picture. Workers downed tools at Tianjin Starlight Rubber and Plastic on Tuesday last week but resumed work the next day, on the Dragon Boat festival. A partial strike last Thursday at the bigger Tianjin Toyoda Gosei plants grew factory-wide on the following morning, but most workers returned to work on Sunday, normally a day off.

On the whole, Toyota said its main production plant in Tianjin, a joint venture with FAW, was only affected for one shift on Friday. The Tianjin plant is Toyota's biggest in China, turning out more than 400,000 vehicles a year, including flagship models such as the Corolla and the RAV4 sport utility vehicle.

Management did not say what was offered in the settlement deal for the first factory; but for the second factory, management said the deal was made up of benefits for perfect attendance and the summer heat, on top of an originally scheduled 20 per cent pay rise.

While troubles appeared to have subsided momentarily for the Japanese carmaker, a shadow loomed large over these Tianjin strike settlements - the presence of the local government. This week at the Dongli Development Zone, where the Toyoda Gosei plants are located, workers were still fuming over the police's rough handling of workers when trying to clear them from the factory last Thursday night, resulting in several workers being sent to hospital.

Police cars patrolled the factory area on Sunday and Monday, while roadblocks were set up at the four roads leading to the factory, creating a controlled zone with a radius of about 800 metres. At least two reporters were escorted away from the zone on Monday, and all people walking within the zone were questioned.

Off-shift workers found outside the zone were reluctant to speak to journalists, citing fear of retribution. But several who did talk said that on the first day of the strike at least 200 police officers and men dressed like police entered the factory grounds at around 10pm, unarmed, and gave them three minutes to clear the floor. About 300 workers were on strike at the time.

One witness said that when the order was not complied with, the uniformed men started pushing the workers towards the doors. Soon there were shouts of "the police are beating us", and at least seven people were injured and sent to hospital.

The worker said he saw two women workers dragged to the door, one by her ponytail, and the other with hands locked behind her, half-bending and half-sitting on the floor.

About 16 workers were taken away by police that night, and the rest of the workers sat outside the factory until 10am the next day, demanding the release of their colleagues, the witness said. Then they went home to rest, with the understanding that pay negotiations would continue on Monday.

"I still couldn't believe that happened," said one young worker who was at the factory on Thursday night and spoke anonymously for fear of the consequences. "The police were supposed to protect us, but they are now standing on the factory's side."

This job was the young worker's first, and after working for a year, he said he was earning about 1,000 yuan a month with overtime and after insurance deductions. He had saved 1,000 yuan so far, partly by living at a relative's home.

When he told his parents about the strike, his parents told him "not to create trouble", and that his "salary is worse at home".

Police, from the Dongli Development Zone all the way up to the municipality level, all declined to comment on the incident this week. One man at the news centre of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau said he had not heard of the incident.

Rather than feeling empowered by the strike experience, the young worker said he felt insecure and disappointed. "This world is just too dark. I no longer want to watch `police versus baddies' films. They disgust me," he said.

"We were already told by our group leader that the government has promised to investigate the beating incident. But if it was discovered that we were making untrue accusations, we would be subject to equally severe legal punishments."

Government officials in one district in Tianjin allegedly threatened workers to return to work on Sunday, saying that if they did not comply, necessary certificates would not be issued to them when they married or had children.

"Nobody wants to speak out, and the more I think about it, the more I regret speaking out," the young worker said. "The stepping-in of the government means it's the end of our action. They could easily define what we did as wrong and illegal."

According to several workers, there had been discussions in a Baidu internet forum about striking, but the forum was shut down on June 13. Last Thursday, workers of the logistics department began to strike and soon other departments joined in.

Government officials in Guangdong and Tianjin handled their strikes noticeably differently, and control of the news is also tighter in the latter, with officials limiting reports of the strikes to Xinhua.

Many people hailed the government's hands-off approach in Guangdong as a key to the successful negotiations between Honda and the workers, which in one case produced whopping 500-yuan monthly rises. In Tianjin, a 30-minute ride on a high-speed train from Beijing - the political heart of the country - maintaining stability appears a higher  priority than improving workers' conditions.

Geoffrey Crothall, director of communications for China Labour Bulletin, said a region's attitude towards labour unrest depended on its economic development, the degree of its reliance on a certain industry or manufacturer, and also the region's experience in dealing with mass actions. Despite the heavy-handed government intervention in Tianjin, Crothall said the strikes were not all futile.

"We see the local government putting pressure on the workers, but I also notice the management giving concessions to the workers," Crothall said. "The government might also have pressured management along the way. We wouldn't know."

On the other hand, Shenzhen University labour relations professor Zhai Yujuan said if a local government stood on management's side by helping to quell a strike, it was acting against the central government's policies.

"The central government said labourers' salaries should be raised. The local government should let management and the workers work out the salary themselves," he said.

"Some local governments may see labour actions as unrest. But the failure to address labourers' legal demands would only create further unrest."

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