China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.
April 26th 2014
THE Pearl river delta in the southern province of Guangdong is no stranger to strikes, most of them small and quickly resolved. But a walk-out by workers at factories owned by a Taiwanese company, Yue Yuen, the world’s largest maker of branded sports shoes, including big names such as Nike and Reebok, has been remarkable for its scale and duration. It began on April 5th and has grown to involve tens of thousands of employees. On a sprawling industrial estate, angry workers watched by riot police rage about an issue few cared much about until recently: their pensions. For bosses and officials, this is a worrying sign of change.
The government has imposed a virtual news blackout on the unrest in the city of Dongguan, a place synonymous with the delta’s manufacturing heft (nearly 80% of its 8.3m people have moved there from other parts of China over the past three decades, or are the children of such migrants). Foreign journalists have been allowed onto Yue Yuen’s main estate in Gaobu township, a Dongguan suburb, but strikers complain that Chinese media are kept away. This contrasts with a relatively free rein given to Chinese reporters in 2010 to report on a large strike over pay by workers at a factory owned by Honda in Foshan, another delta city. That incident involved putting pressure on a Japanese company, an uncontroversial target for most Chinese. This latest, bigger strike (one of the largest in years involving a non-state enterprise in China) has touched a more sensitive government nerve.
The workers accuse Yue Yuen of failing for years to make due contributions to their pensions, which are administered by the local government. Lax application of social-security laws is common, since local authorities do not want to drive away business. “The government is corrupt,” calls out one man among a group of strikers who have gathered near a row of factories. Such comments—directed at local officialdom, not Beijing—are almost as commonly heard as tirades against Yue Yuen itself. Workers fume at the heavy deployment of police, and the beating of some of the thousands of strikers who have been marching through nearby streets, most recently on April 18th (see picture).
Many employees say they are now too afraid to march again. Their protest has become a silent one: they clock in each morning, but then leave the factory and do no work, coming back to clock out when their shift is supposed to end. Workers say all 40,000 employees at Yue Yuen’s seven factories in Gaobu are on strike. A member of Gaobu’s Communist Party committee, Su Huiying, says 40% of them are at work and the rest are only on a “go-slow”. Her assertion appears unconvincing.
A Taiwanese manager at the company says “progress” is being made towards settling the strike. Yue Yuen has offered to make up social-security contributions that it has failed to pay; it has also agreed to start making full contributions from May 1st. But as they listen to repeated broadcasts of the company’s offer through loudspeakers, strikers respond with howls of derision. They also tear up copies of a letter from the government-backed trade union which is mediating in the dispute. The missive calls on workers to go back to work and acknowledge the company’s “sincerity”. “The unions aren’t like the ones in the West,” says one worker. “Here they just represent the government.”
Such anxieties about pension provision among a workforce in Guangdong mostly made up of young migrants may sound surprising. But they are becoming increasingly common as factories try to cope with a growing shortage of young workers from the countryside by retaining employees for longer. Many of Yue Yuen’s workers are in their 30s or even 40s, and many say they have been with the company for a decade or more. Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin says this has been the largest strike in a non-state factory over social-security payments, but protests over such issues are becoming more common.
A whole new stage
Workers at labour-intensive factories like Yue Yuen’s know that times are changing. Production is moving to countries with cheaper labour, such as neighbouring Vietnam. Low-skilled workers entering middle-age are getting increasingly nervous. Without decent pensions, they complain, life back in their villages will be tough. Some of the strikers wear Nike-lookalike shoes. They admit they are cheap knock-offs, made elsewhere, and guffaw at the notion that people like them could afford the real thing.