Workers need to act before they get pushed into a corner

There is a saying in China that “A dog can jump over a high wall if it is pushed into a corner” (狗急跳墙). For many workers in China, the same applies: They can achieve remarkable feats but all too often they will only act when pushed to the limit.

Typically, workers will only go out on strike as a matter of last resort and usually after a long period of abuse and exploitation by management, as was the case in the massive protest at the Yue Yuen shoe factory in Dongguan this spring, which was triggered by the realisation that workers had for years been cheated out of their pension payments. Alternatively, workers will take action when absolutely have to, such as when the factory is about to close down or if they have not been paid for months on end and don’t have enough for basic necessities.

But even then, some workers just go along for the ride. They don’t really understand what their rights are or how to best push their demands through collective action. I recently talked with a young worker at an electronics factory in Shenzhen where the 400 workers were in a dispute with management over compensation for factory relocation and redundancy payments.

“We told the boss our demands, and then we went back to work. But everybody is not happy about the slow process, so we are now putting on a go-slow,” said the worker, who explained that everyone had to line up and tell the boss their grievances one by one.

I asked what would happen if the boss did not answer their demands, and suggested that, instead of simply stating their grievances, the workers should assert their basic labour rights; the right to form a union, to collective bargaining and the right to stage a strike. “I don’t know about rights… I just followed the crowd...” she said.

It is difficult to know what to say in such situations. Thankfully there are a few workers we can turn to; workers who not only know their rights but are prepared to act on those rights proactively, as a matter of principal rather than as a matter of necessity.

Peng Jiayong describes himself as a “redneck without much education.” Yet, he taught himself about labour rights and is now working at a non-governmental labour organisation in Guangzhou, providing labour rights consultancy services to the workers in need. He explained: “I just can’t let the workers get scammed into giving up their rights time after time.”

Peng said that, generally speaking, younger workers are easier to organise than older ones. Older workers, he said, might have worked for decades before being exposed to the concept of labour rights and are often easily intimidated by the company. He suggested that getting workers involved in group activities would allow them to feel safer and better understand their rights.

Another organizer Meng Han took a more hard-line approach: “Sometimes,” he said, “We have to make hard choices and let someone go. The group must move forward, and we can't spend all our time on a hesitant few.”

He also said that putting pressure on hesitant workers was an effective strategy.  For those workers who want stay in the company’s good books but not be excluded by other workers, “we can push them to take a stand by ‘badmouthing’ them in front the boss, saying they are already one of us.”

The workers’ movement in China still has a long way to go but at least there are people like Peng and Meng who have the skills and determination to move it forward.

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