By Bill Schiller
PINGDINGSHAN, CHINA—Out on the pavement the battle lines were drawn: in an awesome show of force, more than 1,000 uniformed, riot and plainclothes police blocked the factory gate — with a special black-clad unit, armed with clubs, riot shields and a don’t-mess-with-us attitude.
Across the street, close to 3,000 sullen looking workers milled about, cursing.
Nearly 5,500 walked off their jobs at the Pingdingshan Cotton Textile Co. here recently, demanding better pay and working conditions.
By anyone’s measure they had cause: most work for 65 cents per hour.
Suddenly, strikes are surging across China as poorly paid workers — the engine of China’s economic miracle — are demanding a bigger share of the enormous wealth the country is earning from its booming export-driven economy.
The strikes — many not reported inside China on orders from the central government — threaten to cripple an economy that has enjoyed double-digit growth for years.
The government wants to keep a lid on them.
But on one morning last week, workers appeared to be winning.
“They don’t treat us like human beings,” shouted one woman.
“They couldn’t care less if we lived or died,” said another.
A third woman leaned into ever-growing circle of people keen to vent to a visiting journalist. “Today they beat people,” she said. “They beat people in plain daylight! They took away eight workers. The more they resisted — the more they beat them!”
It was mid-morning on Jianshe Rd. in normally peaceful Pingdingshan, about 1,000 kilometres south of Beijing, as workers — mostly women — fumed as the strike entered its 19th day.
The standoff in central China was by no means isolated.
Last week much of the country’s attention focused on a strike at a Japanese-owned Honda factory in southern China — for which Chinese authorities allowed rare and open reporting. Workers there won a 24 per cent pay hike.
Authorities also allowed reporting on the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn electronic assembly plant, where a scourge of suicides by workers corralled in regimented factories rocked the nation.
Foxconn responded with a 30 per cent wage increase – and announced a further 70 per cent Monday.
But few in China heard about the clash in Pingdingshan — or more than 15 other strikes that spilled into the streets of China in May.
While it was fine for Chinese media to report on strikes at large, foreign-owned factories — the government suppressed news about worker actions at other, Chinese-owned and operated plants. It didn’t want the contagion to spread to other pools of cheap labour across China.
And few are as cheap as those in Pingdingshan.
While government figures show China’s textile workers earn an average 1,360 yuan per month (about $212), workers here say they earn less than half that — about 660 Chinese yuan (about $103).
Workers say they barely make enough to feed their families.
And many who earn such wages have worked here for more than 20 years.
“Many of us joined when it was a state-owned enterprise,” explained one 21-year veteran. “The wages were low, but the job was guaranteed.”
But in 2006 the factory was privatized. China was changing. Some were getting rich.
But the workers weren’t. On May 14, they decided they’d had enough.
Inspired by a group of angry pensioners who blocked the company’s gates after learning their pension benefits would amount to just $16 per month, other workers seized the moment and walked off production lines.
One evening last week in a private apartment in Pingdingshan, four workers with more than 100 years of experience at the factory told stories of hellish working conditions, a punishing cycle of rotating 2-day shifts, forced overtime, arbitrary fines and workers fainting in 42 C heat only to be forced back to work within the hour.
“Even if you’re sick, you’re not allowed to leave work,” said one woman, who like all workers interviewed for this article asked that her name not be used, out of fear of being punished by her employer or local authorities.
Repeated attempts by the Star to elicit responses from both the company and the government were rebuffed.
“I can’t answer your questions,” Xiao Hongjun of the factory’s publicity department said. “Contact the municipal government.”
At the municipal government a man who would only identify himself as the deputy director of external publicity hung up when the Star sought comment.
A key concern among many women at the factory – who are believed to constitute 80 per cent of the workforce – is the condition of 48-year-old Wu Xiumin, a worker who witnesses say was badly beaten last week, dragged to a police vehicle and driven off
“She is strong, well spoken and a very good writer,” said one co-worker who knows her well. “She has a true sense of justice. She always says, ‘I’m not taking a stand just for myself, but for all my brothers and sisters in this factory.’ ”
Wu was also the object of repeated harassment by factory foremen, workers say. Determined to push her into retirement or force her to leave, workers say she was repeatedly fined.
“Her monthly wage after fines was 270 RMB per month (about $42),” a friend says.
Workers say foremen hand out fines for work violations like, “having a brief conversation with a fellow worker.”
Wu operated three mechanized weaving machines producing large bolts of unbleached cotton. Each machine is 30 metres long.
Workers say they do not know whether the cotton was sold domestically or exported.
“The job just keeps you running and running,” said one worker.
Everyone said the air inside the factory is heavy with cotton fibres and in summer months the factory feels like a sauna.
“They have air conditioning,” explained one. “But instead — even in summer months — they use ventilation machines to heat the air to make it easier for the machines to reach their required temperatures easily and more cheaply.”
One male worker with 25 years experience said he saw one disabled former worker dragged off during worker protests.
“ ‘Old Tang,’ said the man, “His real name is Xu Zhenqiang — they pulled him right out of his three-wheeled mechanized vehicle and drove him off.”
By law, Chinese workers are supposed to get 15 days of vacation per year.
But workers say that’s routinely denied.
Those interviewed said they had never been allowed off more than the annual week of Chinese New Year.
Workers also claimed that at the work action’s peak, authorities deployed 4,000 police.
Such displays of state muscle aimed at intimidating workers back to work might be unheard of in the West — but not here.
“It’s certainly not unusual,” says Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
“Striking isn’t illegal in China: there is no law that actually prohibits it. But there isn’t an actual ‘right to strike’ either,” he adds. “Legally, it’s a grey area.”
Labour unions, too, don’t play the same role as in Western countries, he stresses. At Chinese enterprises, they are essentially a tool of management.
“They will rarely, if ever, stand four-square with workers,” he notes.
Crothall, whose organization tracks labour issues inside China, confirms that China is experiencing a noticeable surge in strikes.
“Coming out of the economic downturn last year, workers were probably more willing to bide their time and not rock the boat,” he observes. “But now they’re seeing the economy booming again and workers who are paid low wages are asking questions and demanding better compensation.”
The conventional wisdom arising from the Honda and Foxconn events has been that a new, younger generation of workers are more demanding than previous ones — and they know how to use the Internet and mobile technology to advantage.
“But Pingdingshan shows that older, more established workers are demanding more too,” says Crothall.
And they’ve clearly been inspired by the young.
When news of the young Honda workers’ victory reached Pingdingshan, older workers taped newspaper accounts of it to the factory’s gates.
The message was clear: if Honda’s workers could win, why shouldn’t they?
As the week progressed, however, employees reported that some strikers were being lured back to work with cash.
Workers say their foremen told them: return to work by Monday night — or lose your jobs.