Defeat will only make us stronger: Workers look back at the Yue Yuen shoe factory strike

22 May 2014

The two-week strike by around 40,000 workers at the vast Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen shoe factory complex in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan last month was one of the largest strikes in recent history. It highlighted the problems of low pay and lack of social security, as well as the increasing organizing power of the workers in the region known as China’s “factory to the world.”

As the strike died down at the end of April, labour activist, Xiaoqiu, talked to a 15-year veteran at Yue Yuen about life at the factory, the reasons for the strike and what the future holds for the thousands of middle-aged workers who gave their youth to the company. The uniquely detailed conversation ranged from the relationship between production line workers and various levels of management, workers’ solidarity at different workshops, the role of labour activists in advising workers during the strike, the actions of the police and, critically, the stance of the local government and trade union.
The workers were particularly incensed by the actions of the municipal trade union federation which promised to help them but ended up, in their eyes, acting as an agent for the government and the employer. As the veteran worker said, the union’s actions only made the situation worse:

In the end, three sides suffered losses in this strike – workers were suppressed, the employer had to pay billions in compensation and fines, and the legitimacy of the government was eroded.

The conversation illustrates the different views and expectations of the younger activist and the more conservative veteran worker but it also shows how, following the strike, the Yue Yuen workers were even more determined to fight for better pay and conditions.

The interviews took place between 24 and 27 April and the 13,000 character transcript was published on the blog Worker View Point (工评社) on 27 April 2014. The interview transcript hereunder has been translated and edited by CLB.

Note: The chronology of the original transcript is at times inconsistent and CLB cannot vouch for the veracity of all of the statements made by the discussants.

An in-depth discussion with a veteran worker at Yue Yuen

Wages and worker composition at Yue Yuen, general information about factories in the area

Xiaoqiu: What is the pay level like at Yue Yuen?

Veteran: Workers get a basic wage of 1,310 yuan per month (the current minimum wage in Dongguan). Yue Yuen always pays the local minimum wage but workers at other factories in Gaobu township like Huahong Spectacles can get a basic wage of 1,750 yuan.

Take home pay at Yue Yuen varies from workshop to workshop. Shoe factory workers, for example, get a monthly bonus paid by the piece collectively. For example, if one assembly line produces 5,000 pairs of shoes a month, and each pair earns us two yuan, then the total amount for all the workers along the line will be 10,000 yuan. The amount received by each worker is based on individual performance and is determined by the leaders. Those who perform well can get maybe 100 yuan more than others.

Monthly wages include: basic wage, a perfect attendance award of 150 yuan, long service award, overtime pay and piece rate bonuses. New employees can get 2,400-2,500 yuan or so. After three months, they can get the 170 yuan long service award, which rises steadily – 190 yuan for one year, and ten yuan more for each subsequent year, with a cap at 290 yuan. If the plants have to meet many orders, senior workers can get 2,700 or 2,800 yuan a month, but they have to pay for their own lodging. If there are not so many orders in a month and they don’t work overtime as frequently, they can only get 2,200 yuan or even less.

Overtime pay at the Old No.3 Plant and the G8 Plant is calculated according to basic wages, plus the perfect attendance award and long service award. But overtime pay at other plants is based only on the basic wage.

Xiaoqiu: Are there a lot of women and senior workers at Yue Yuen? In this strike, I heard the “auntie-workers” were often rebuked by the younger ones. What is the real situation? Did senior workers or new workers act more vigorously in this strike?

Veteran: Women workers make up 70 percent. In the shoe plants, women workers are usually in a majority. Here in the sole plant, the number of women workers accounts for about half, while there are more men in the mould plant.

All Yue Yuen factories have a lot of senior workers. About 70 percent of the workers have been here for more than five years, and 10-15 percent of them have been here ten years. Senior workers know and trust each other, so of course they are united. Many of them came to Yue Yuen at 18 or 19-years-old, and now even their children work here. Many of them are related because most of the workers were introduced by fellow villagers or relatives working here. Yue Yuen was not so bad a few years ago.

Actually, the “rebuke” by younger workers you mentioned is not based on objective reporting. Many women workers in their 30s and 40s I know were very vigorous and determined in the strike, and I have great admiration for them. I know two women from the Old No.3 Plant, both in their thirties – one worked here for more than a year and another is a newcomer – but they were both actively involved in the strike. Although they were not well-educated, they stick to a simple belief that the company cannot bully workers, and that we are just claiming what is rightfully ours.

Relationship between the workers and the leaders at various levels, leadership factions, and some information on this strike

Xiaoqiu: What is the relationship with management like? How do the workers get along with the leaders?

Veteran: The management hierarchy of Yue Yuen from the top-down is: Assistant General Manager – Manager – Deputy Manager – Sub-manager –Director – Section Manager – Team Leader – Monitor.

Leaders and workers of the mould plant get along well because they are skilled workers. But in the shoe plant and sole plant, sometimes the leaders scold the workers because they are unskilled. The Taiwan guys rack their brains to compress working hours and increase output, so the leaders and workers work under great stress. The production volume that used to take ten hours to complete now has to be done in just eight, so the leaders have to push the workers, which often creates friction. Many leaders get promoted because of flattery; they just know how to fawn on the upper levels, but conversely they scold and push workers around in a rude way.

In Yue Yuen, it often happens that a Taiwan guy wants to punish a section head, but the latter gets together with his fellow villager, also a section head, to mobilize workers for a strike.

Xiaoqiu: Is such mobilization frequent?

Veteran: Yes, I’ve often heard about such stories.

Xiaoqiu: So this strike was directed by the section heads?

Veteran: They didn't publicly direct the strike; they did it secretly because this is related to their vital interests. Maybe this strike would have continued until May Day if the leaders hadn't urged the workers to get back to work. You’ve seen people saying in the QQ chat group that the leaders got money from the employer, so they were willing to get the workers back to work. But I don't have any evidence, so I am not sure.

Xiaoqiu: Do you think it was the same situation in most of the workshops? That is to say, originally the leaders took the lead in giving secret support to the strike, and later forced the workers to return to work?

Veteran: Yes, the leaders played a big role in getting the workers to return to work. Most of them stand by the workers’ side, but some section heads served as running dogs, because they abused their personal relationship with grassroots leaders as well as with their fellow villagers to alternate between kindness and severity and get the workers to return to work. Originally, the section heads had no objection to the strike, because they could gain from it. But later, perhaps they reaped secret benefits or felt the stress was really unbearable, so they changed their tune and moved to the opposite camp to assist the employer in supressing the workers. The section heads even attacked the workers. Later, all section heads persuaded the workers to return to work.

Xiaoqiu: The guys that forced the workers to return to work were the directors and section managers, right? Did the line managers and team leaders force the workers? 

Veteran: Basically, the heads were the “most hard-working”. In the later stage of the strike, most of the grassroots leaders couldn't withstand the pressure from the upper levels, so they persuaded the workers to return to work. But they didn't get any pay-off from the employer, so they still tended to side with the workers. However, as leaders, they couldn't openly defy the heads.

Grassroots leaders always side with the workers. The guys beating and forcing the workers were section managers and other mid-level and senior executives. In assembly lines, leaders and workers don’t always get along well with each other, but that is just internal differences. Actually, the top executives represent the factory. So, to put it rather dramatically, they are the workers’ enemy.

Xiaoqiu: Do line managers and workers argue all the time?

Veteran: Almost every day when the work is slow or workers do something wrong or fail to reach targets. It is normal, but when facing a common foe, you have to stay together. For example, the Kuomintang and Communist Party battled furiously, but when Japan invaded, they came together like brothers.

Xiaoqiu: I once worked at a factory supplying a well-known Chinese brand. They counted time behind me with a stopwatch, and I felt very anxious about that, because I think they just saw workers as machines. This is a common failing in many large factories.

Veteran: Assembly line productivity is always measured with a stopwatch. Every move has its standard time. And the output is determined according to this standard. But people are not machines, so how can they keep up such speed and accuracy in a continuous eight-hour period? People get tired and go to the toilet, right? So this method for determining output is unreasonable and inhumane.

Xiaoqiu: Counting workers’ time with a stopwatch is offensive!

Veteran: Someone from my hometown who used to work at the Old No.3 Plant told me that she found it impossible to meet the targets, and she didn't even have time to go to the toilet. To control costs, the workshops don't give the workers any overtime but output is constantly increasing.

Before and after the strike: Workers were forced to return to work, cops came to the workshops and attacked the striking workers

Xiaoqiu: Not all workers participated in the strike initially, right?

Veteran: Maybe, but many of us didn't know about it that day. I believe no one contacted the various plants, and our plant didn't know about this at all, nor did we hear about it in advance. I didn't know till I came here two or three days later, because we had a three-day break for Tomb-sweeping Day. We heard about it when we came back, and we were all surprised.

Everyone went out on 15 April when Assistant General Manager Li Lujia told the crowd gathered in Shaotan Living Quarters Square that the social insurance and housing fund arrears could not be paid because the government would not agree to it. He was shouted down by the workers. Later, some workers in the QQ group called on everyone to go on strike. But even before then, on the 14th, the New No.3 Plant and Old No.3 Plant, No.1 Shoe plant, No.1 Sole Plant, Jiayuan No.1 Plant and Shangjiangcheng No. 6/7/8 Plants were already out on strike. The all-out strike started on 15 April.

Xiaoqiu: Which factories were the main forces behind the strike?

Veteran: It was No.1 Sole Plant at the beginning, and then the others joined in blocking Gaobu Bridge on 5 April but I don't know about the main forces at that stage. Now (in the latter stage of strike) the main force is Old No.3 Plant which has the largest number of workers and the most determined attitude. We thought they would return to work, but the workers of Old No.3 Plant were obstinate. Many senior women workers held their ground. That was impressive! But the workers at the Old No.3 Plant returned to work on 26 April, and now everyone is back except Jiayuan No.1 Plant.

There was a difference between the various plants. Old No.3 Plant was the most determined while No.1 Plant was the weakest. Old No.3 Plant is the largest and has more than 10,000 workers. On the afternoon of 25 April, most of the workers in Old No.3 Plant couldn't get in, including several acquaintances of mine. The card machines were removed, so they couldn't be used.

Today, there was an assault at the G8 Plant – some leaders attacked women workers who refused to return to work. In the Old No.3 Plant, cops attacked women workers after they entered the workshop. They used force to carry a worker away. Plain clothes police infiltrated the crowd, taking away suspected activists. Yue Yuen Shoe Factory became Yue Yuen Prison! My neighbour works at the Old No.3 Plant and she told me this. Anyway, there is no doubt that this happened, my neighbour witnessed it first-hand.

Xiaoqiu: You should put out a banner demanding compensation from the Dongguan police. How can workers put up with such a factory? They wounded two workers in one day, heads broken and bleeding!

Relationship between the cops, the trade union and the workers before and after the strike, and a change in workers’ thinking

Veteran: Several days ago, cops were dispersing workers over by the Wenhua Hotel, and I was taking photos there. A cop came over to me and told me to stop. And I said, OK, I won’t take photos but this doesn't violate the law. He said: “We are both not in a position to take on such a big business, but we won’t intervene if you don’t make trouble or stage protests on the streets.” The guy was wearing a regular police uniform. I think he was a sergeant.

A few days ago, many workers talked to the cops on duty in their living quarters. They were sympathetic but they are disciplined service officers, so they have to carry out orders from above.

Xiaoqiu: So the workers were not exactly hostile to the cops initially?

Veteran: When the workers marched along the street on the 14th those cops did attack them, dispersed them and even arrested some of them. On the 17th or 18th, a worker at the Old No.3 Plant was wounded, lying at the factory gate. From then on, the cops stopped the attacks and sat on the fence. But when the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions intervened, the attitude of the employer and the cops started to deteriorate and they suppressed the workers.

Actually, the secret arrests never stopped. I said they ‘sit on the fence’ but that just means those cops didn't act overtly in front of the thousands of workers.

Xiaoqiu: You say when the Federation intervened in the case, things started to deteriorate. The Federation got involved on 21 April right?

Veteran: The Federation staff entered the plant on 22 or 23 April. After seeking workers’ opinions, they issued a Proposal of Resumption of Work, calling on everyone to return to work. Then, the cops sealed the factory gates. The workers couldn't punch in, and those inside were not allowed to go out. Later, the employer removed the card machines, so workers couldn't punch in. I think they are on the same side – the Federation, the cops and the employer. They used a combination blow targeting the workers.

Xiaoqiu: You never suspected this initially, right?

Veteran: Yeah. When we saw the Federation’s microblog we thought they would be on our side. But we were in for a surprise.

Xiaoqiu: You really thought so? I saw some quite dismissive comments from workers about the Federation on QQ.

Veteran: At least my friends thought so. Colleagues said: The leaders will back off now that the Federation said they would come out and support us and create a working group to assist us. But then we felt swindled and betrayed.

Xiaoqiu: I saw something uploaded to the internet on 18 April entitled ‘Instructions on Safeguarding Legal Rights in a Legitimate Way’. It expected much of the police. Unfortunately, expectations of civilized law enforcement came to nothing.

Veteran: Cops never enforce the law in a civilized way. We had high hopes for the Federation but we were tricked. Now the Federation says they can offer help in the union re-election but the activists dare not show up; otherwise, they’ll get into trouble.

Strikes in the history of Yue Yuen and the reasons for this strike in April 2014

Xiaoqiu: From the internet I know there was a strike in 2011 as well. It seems there were many small-scale strikes in the past?

Veteran: That was at the Yucheng Shoe Factory, part of Yue Yuen (Pou Chen Group). Small-scale strikes, countless! Those strikes were usually caused by some policies in a single plant, but there had never been a strike in which all the plants united as one. This is a milestone, escalating the strike from one plant to the whole factory. Moreover, those earlier strikes were all spontaneous, but this time workers carried banners and yelled out their demands. It was a big step forward.

Xiaoqiu: So there has been a qualitative as well as quantitative change?

Veteran: You could say that. You know trouble has been brewing for quite some time. It’s the employer exploiting and oppressing the workers for so long that led to this big storm. In 2008, hundreds of workers at the YY3 Mould Plant were dissatisfied with the terms of their labour contract so they refused to sign it, and the result was they were oppressed by the employer. That time too the cops sealed the factory gates so as not to let the workers punch in. The workers then gathered at the gate of the Dongguan municipal government office. Eventually, the government asked both sides to reconsider the contract.

Xiaoqiu: This time the strike was reportedly started by a woman worker who raised questions regarding her social security account.

Veteran: Social security problems were the trigger but there are many other reasons. Anyway, workers just took this opportunity to vent their anger. Long-term grudges!

Xiaoqiu: What are the other major reasons apart from social security?

Veteran: Low pay is the biggest problem. Workers haven’t seen a pay rise for many years. Actually, Yue Yuen workers are very tolerant. The employer reduced our bonus every time the Dongguan minimum wage was increased but the workers just swallowed their indignation.

In the past, young men were vying for jobs at Yue Yuen and only skilled men could get in. If workers with no experience wanted jobs they’d have had to bribe their way in – often a month’s salary at least. But now, there are almost no young men wanting to work here. The pay is very low and the workforce has a high turnover. Other plants in Gaobu township can pay more than 3,000 yuan per month but at Yue Yuen it is just 2,700 yuan or so.

Xiaoqiu: How can Yue Yuen retain staff if it offers such low pay? Do the workers just get used to working there? Or are there other benefits?

Veteran: Yue Yuen is a big plant with hospitals and kindergartens, so workers get a feeling of stability. Most of them are middle-aged workers who have been there since their teens, so they are reluctant to leave. Some left and came back later.

Xiaoqiu: When I heard that you guys went on strike for social security, I was a little surprised because I don’t care about that and nor do my friends. So I thought there must be something else going on.

Veteran: Hah, you’re smart! That’s right. Social security is just the main excuse for the strike. Breaking the law when it comes to social security is so prevalent that nobody will do anything about it.

Xiaoqiu: Of course, I am also a worker. A pay raise of 30 percent is a demand that probably unites all the workers. It is a pity that few people mentioned that and just focused on making up the social security in arrears or dissolving the labour relationship with a one-off payment.

Veteran: Yeah. Initially workers just wanted to vent their anger because we’ve been suppressed by the boss for too long, but then our grievances gradually evolved into some specific demands, bit by bit. Workers just wanted to take the employer down but they were very tough to deal with. Those Taiwanese bosses even said “You mainland Chinese are just cheap,” so we all wanted to ruin the factory and get compensation payments before we left. The original goal was just to get a raise for the workers.

As to the social security problem, there are differing views. Now, most of the workers in Yue Yuen don't want to pay the social security in arrears, because they have to pay their employee contributions out of their own pockets and they can’t afford it. Long-term employees need to take out social security worth tens of thousands of yuan! Where can they get that kind of money?

Xiaoqiu: Can the demands for severance pay and a raise be combined? Those who want to leave can demand severance pay while those who want to stay can demand a raise, just like they did at the ASM factory in Shenzhen last November. Would you take severance pay for example?

Veteran: It is complicated. I left once and came back again several years ago, so I won’t be compensated too much if I leave now. It’s a pity that my employment at Yue Yuen was interrupted. I really regret it. But absolutely, I would want to take severance pay and leave Yue Yuen if I had over ten years’ continuous employment.

Xiaoqiu: Actually, Yue Yuen makes a lot of profit but pays very low wages.

Veteran: Yue Yuen won’t last much longer in Dongguan. It has been discredited by the strike, and its customers will definitely reduce orders. What’s more, they have to face higher costs and an increasingly militant workforce. Yue Yuen had just 800 or 900 workers initially but that expanded to 100,000 workers at its peak, so they must have earned a lot of money before the expansion. Unfortunately, the workers never got a share of the benefits.

Comparison of the strikes at Yue Yuen and ASM and reasons why strikers at the Old No.3 Plant were so resolute

Xiaoqiu: In last November’s ASM strike, 5,000 workers took part and 1,000 of them were really resolute. That strike lasted 22 days, and the employer eventually agreed to a 20 percent pay increase for the workers.

Veteran: I saw the video of that strike. They were very well-organized and had more of a shock value than us.

Xiaoqiu: During the ASM strike, there were no conflicts with the police in the first 21 days, only on the last day when a few hundred holdouts refused the employer’s offer: Really impressive.

Veteran: I guess the reason for the success of the ASM strike was mainly their good organization, but we never had a strong leadership group. All of us acted spontaneously without any organization or discipline. Old No.3 Plant has a lot of workers and they were very united. But many plants haven’t got core members, so their strikes were just spontaneous acts.

Xiaoqiu: ASM’s core workers are established skilled workers, not assembly line workers. The latter can create solidarity if they work together long enough in the same place. It is a pity there is such a high worker turnover in almost all the factories in the Pearl River Delta, so the workers are not so united.

Veteran: Factories need both skilled workers and production line workers. Even good production line workers are not so easy to recruit, especially for factories making brand name shoes because quality control is very strict.

Opinions on trade union re-election and intervention by non-governmental labour rights organizations

Veteran: On 24 April, the trade union federation announced that they would help us re-elect our representatives. Let’s wait and see. Maybe they can help us pick real worker representatives.

Xiaoqiu: Do you believe that?

Veteran: It’ll be good news if they can. Then representatives can directly negotiate with the company. But I have my doubts. If the election is democratic then it will be OK but if the representatives are appointed by the employer, it’ll be hopeless. Which non-governmental organizations are you in?

Xiaoqiu: None. I don't believe in them because I think they all have their own agenda. I am just a common worker interested in workers’ rights.

Veteran: I am very curious about how (Shenzhen-based labour rights group) Chunfeng gets funds.

Xiaoqiu: I guess they are supported by foreign groups. There are dozens of groups like Chunfeng in Shenzhen, and maybe there are 30 or 40 in Guangdong. All of them have different backgrounds but they are closely monitored by the state.

Veteran: When a BBC reporter arrived at Yue Yuen to cover the strike, my first reaction was “we are saved,” and the second was “oh no, we shamed our country again”. You know, I am a patriot after all, but the BBC’s report means such things will be known outside China. Online support alone can’t have much impact. They say Zhang Zhiru (the director of Chunfeng) is missing. Have you heard anything?

Xiaoqiu: (The labour scholar) Wang Jiangsong said on his microblog that Zhang is being detained at a hotel in Dongguan.

Veteran: Chunfeng is well known now but we had never heard of them before.

Xiaoqiu: They’ve been a hot topic for a while now. Of course, they are even more well-known this time around. After all, such a big strike is a rarity in China and Zhang Zhiru is benefiting from it.

Veteran: At least, they gave us some ideas, which I think are basically pertinent and reasonable, including social security, housing funds, a pay raise of 30 percent and trade union re-election. And Zhang always calls for the establishment of a workers’ committee to lead the strike. Some people say he has his own agenda but we didn't see any evidence of this. Anyway, we didn't see any other groups coming to our aid during this strike.

Xiaoqiu: There were some other groups but they were more low-key. There is one well-established NGO from Guangzhou that got involved but it seems they didn't even announce their name. There was also a law firm that got involved.

About the blog, Worker View Point: Not in favour of radical remarks

Veteran: What’s your relationship with Worker View Point?

Xiaoqiu: Comradeship. Huh, we hold different opinions but are on the same path.

Veteran: Many of the comments on Worker View Point are quite radical, so, honestly, I am not so supportive of them. Although the government does not do a good job in some areas, hurling accusations at the government and getting involved in politics is just ill-advised.

Xiaoqiu: Yes, very radical, and such comments are often censored. So we need to be careful.

Veteran: In China, it is best not to get involved in political issues. I told you these things because you are a friend. I remember you once asked me if I read the reports in Worker View Point and I said we should not talk about politics.

Xiaoqiu: I acted impulsively in the past but now I am more tactical.

Veteran: Even moderate voices are being suppressed by the government, let alone those radicals. First, we need to protect ourselves, and then we can do more meaningful things or we’ll get into trouble. More seriously, you may be killed.

Xiaoqiu: You are right. When you work in such a plant, you need to learn to endure before you get the chance to fight back. Worker View Point is like a younger version of me, more radical. I’ll advise them to tone it down in the future.

Veteran: Right, just like Yue Yuen workers made use of the social security issue: Although the workers’ demands were not exactly about social security, they all united under the banner of social security rights, so we won widespread attention and sympathy.

Yue Yuen workers and their sense of organization, a review of Chunfeng and labour activists

Xiaoqiu: Do you think the Yue Yuen workers can form a stable organization after this strike?

Veteran: Not really. Although they are “workers” in status, it’s hard to form a solid trade union because they still think like peasants. It is a shame that we are always meek until pushed into a corner. There is a saying that a baited rabbit may grow as fierce as a lion, but how many man-eating rabbits have you seen?

I have been thinking about the Yue Yuen strike over these last few days

Xiaoqiu: What do you think is the key issue?

Veteran: I reckon the workers will always fail if they just act spontaneously and don’t get support from labour rights groups like Chunfeng. The workers’ solidarity weakened after the employer made a minor concession. And there was also suppression from the government, so it inevitably failed. Actually, I knew this strike would fail when they got obsessed with the union election and gathering demands in the QQ group because they failed to unify the workers with concerted action and consistent demands.

Xiaoqiu: Many labour organizations in Shenzhen got involved in strike actions over the past few years, and they played a big role – they mobilized the workers and supported senior workers and activists.

Veteran: But this time only Chunfeng made an appearance and we don't know about the other organizations. I also feel some of them are supported by Hong Kong or foreign agencies. I wonder why only Chunfeng got involved this time and why the other organizations did not. Is it because they don’t have strong backers?
Xiaoqiu: Probably, and maybe they have misgivings. It’s really hard to say.

Many of the founders of these organizations are workers. Zhang Zhiru used to be a worker. Before he founded Chunfeng, he tried to establish a trade union but failed. Later, he founded a migrant workers’ association, and finally he set up Chunfeng. They reportedly set up a group of more than 50 Yue Yuen workers but only three names were listed, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong from Chunfeng and Chen Huihai from another labour group.

Veteran: But if you saw Yue Yuen’s announcement today, you may feel this group didn't function very well. Maybe they helped raise some questions, because there are some issues that even I didn't think of. The questions they proposed are very detailed and pertinent. But the government and the company just sidestepped them or refused to address them directly. I don't know what will happen. If this group really works, we will still have hope.

Xiaoqiu: Lin Dong has been put in detention. The Dongguan Trade Union Federation people just want to neutralise Chunfeng. The Dongguan authorities can’t stand Zhang Zhiru.  When he intervened in the Nokia strike last November, he was threatened and kicked out by Dongguan state security. Later, Zhang uploaded pictures of the state security leaders on the internet, so they hate him.

The last point to note is that it will be a bad move if you return to work before the trade union negotiates with the employer because such negotiations will be compromised. You cannot negotiate with the employer after returning to work. Just talk to them now. There is a guy named Chang Kai in Zhang Zhiru’s group, and he is really a nuisance, because it was this guy that persuaded the workers in that Honda Strike in Foshan in 2010 to return to work before negotiating with the employer. As a result, workers had no ace to play in the negotiations with the employer. Half a year later, the employer finally increased their wages but only by 60 percent of what the workers were asking for.

Ending the strike cannot solve the problem because workers still have low pay

Veteran: But if they continue to pen the workers inside the compound, the workers will return to work anyway. It’s just a matter of time. And even if they return to work now they will certainly strike again if the pay is too low.

You see, ordinary workers can get about 2,700 yuan a month, and it will be 2,930 yuan if they get a 230 yuan pay raise, but social security and the housing fund will be deducted from this figure (2,930 × 8 percent (social security) + 2,930 × 5 percent at least (housing fund)). Thus, they will get 2,500 yuan, less than before. Do you think the workers will be content with that? By the way, overtime stays the same. Adidas has made it clear that it will reduce orders, and maybe other brands will follow suit. So we have reasons to believe the workers will be paid less.

Xiaoqiu: 230 yuan is not very much. They broke the law for more than ten years and now they ask us to “pay social security by law.” Workers will earn less so no one likes the scheme.  It is clear that forcing the workers to return to work under the existing proposal will come to nothing.

Veteran: You’re right. It won’t help. So I predict there will be a big strike within half a year and there will only be one demand – a raise of at least 30 percent. Workers can’t live on 2,300-2,400 yuan!

Xiaoqiu: It’s important to ask for a raise! As you said, workers are getting less because of the social security deduction. I once worked in a big plant in Shenzhen for years, and our take home pay always shrank whenever basic wages were raised. Outsiders think it’s weird, but actually it is like what you said.

A sense of belonging in Gaobu township; workers unclear about their future

Veteran: I’ve been here in Yue Yuen for 15 years. Honestly, I have a sentimental attachment to the place but I don’t know now. Many people sacrificed their youth here, but when they get old they will they really get to live in CCTV News Wonderland? (An ironic reference to the state broadcaster’s rose-tinted coverage of life in China.)

Gaobu is my second home and Yue Yuen is like my family. For many workers, this is a simple and honest feeling. We were once proud to be Yue Yuen workers. We just want a decent job and a dignified life.  We love the Communist Party and our homeland, and we hope our country can develop better. But when we workers cannot benefit from the sustained economic development, I think it’s not right.

Xiaoqiu: I understand why you feel that way after working for a long time in a big plant. But many factories in the Pearl River Delta don't treat workers well. I have been away from home for many years, so I don't have such a strong sense of belonging like you. I just want to go home, but I can’t make money if I go home. Now I feel confused.

Veteran: Yeah, I once went home for a year but realised I was ill-adapted to life there. Several years ago, if you went home, they might feel you really know something because you stayed outside so long. But now, they just ignore you. If we go home, we don’t have capital for investment nor do we have professional skills, so it’s hard, because we just don't know what we should do. Things we learnt in the factory cannot help at all, and there are no factories like Yue Yuen at home. What can we do when we are old? Many factories don't recruit workers over 35-years-old so we can’t work at the factory for ever.

Xiaoqiu: You mean unskilled workers. It won’t be that bad for skilled workers, right?

Veteran: Not much better. They just don't recruit old workers. Besides, the shoemaking industry is going downhill in China but all we know is how to make shoes.

Why the strike failed; the situation since the workers returned to work; mood and opinions after the strike

Xiaoqiu: Why did the strike fail? Will there be a cut in the workforce after this strike?

Veteran: The main reason is government suppression: the police sealed the gates so the workers had to return to work. The workers turned pessimistic, thinking we won’t win, and a pay raise of 230 yuan is not too bad after all, so maybe I should return to work.

It’s hard to say if people will get laid off. We all returned to work on April 25, and then the employer declared we wouldn't work overtime unless there were urgent tasks. As expected, they are getting back at us now – controlling overtime is proof.

Xiaoqiu: The workers returned to work today. How do they feel? What is the mood after the strike? And are there new ideas among the workers?

Veteran: Although we returned to work, we still harbour resentment. We all feel aggrieved today. Outwardly, the strike has been resolved but the underlying problems are still there. All in all, we are frustrated. We feel especially dissatisfied because of the government’s suppression of workers. All of us feel very angry at being forced to work now.

Police inside the Yue Yuen complex on 25 April

I heard that one leader was attacked by several workers of Old No.3 Plant on April 25. And I also heard now leaders above the level of section head are escorted by cops when they leave the factory. Cops entered the compound on 26 April and questioned the activists. I know that a bench worker of G3 Mould Plant was questioned by them. That man was also asked for his QQ ID. The three activists at the YY3 Mould Plant and many other workers were taken to the office building for questioning, and finally they were warned. I don’t see myself as an activist. During the strike, I accused the police of forcing the workers to return to work but I don't know if they’ll take me away.

In the end, all three sides suffered losses in this strike – workers were suppressed, the employer had to pay billions in compensation and fines, and the legitimacy of the government was eroded.

Xiaoqiu: But do you think that this strike woke the workers up and dispelled their illusions about the government, the trade union and the police? This kind of awareness will inject more power to future struggles.

Veteran: Sure. In the early stage of the strike, workers even hoped the government could help mediate in the dispute but they saw the government’s true colours when the union’s intervention intensified the suppression. They are the hatchet men and running dogs of the employer.

The fire was put out but the embers remain and it will ignite again. And in the next strike we will definitely be better organized and combat-ready!

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