Yue Yuen factory workers’ strike is identified by media and commentators as one of the biggest workers movements that took place in China in recent years. Cherie Chan explains the significance of the strike and its impact on the Chinese labour movement.
Last month, an estimated 40,000 factory workers in Dongguan – a city in Guangong Province of China – went on strike against Yue Yuen shoe factory, a supplier to many international brands of sport shoes such as Nike and Adidas. Striking workers complained that the Taiwanese-owned factory underpaid their pension contributions and social insurance. Workers also claimed that Yue Yuen treated them as temporary employees instead of permanent employees to evade a large amount of contributions it is obliged to pay for them.
Ineffective law enforcement
According to Labour Law in China, employers are obliged to pay for 11% of workers’ total salary as contribution for their social insurance, which
covers five areas including retirement pension, medical insurance, work-injury insurance, unemployment insurance and maternity insurance. A lot of factories in China, however, do not comply with the regulations. A Hong Kong based newspaper, Wen Wei Po reported that Yue Yuen have been applying temporary employment terms to pay for workers’ social insurance, as a result the contributions workers received from the company is 10 times less than what they are entitled to.
Yue Yuen Company is only one of the many foreign invested factories that underpay and abuse Chinese workers. Exploitation of Chinese labour first gained international attention in 2010, when 14 employees committed suicide in the Taiwanese-owned factory Foxconn, which is the largest electronics manufacture with customers including Apple, Dell and HP. Facing international pressure for the commitment of workers rights, Foxconn promised to raise workers salaries and improve their living conditions in the company’s residence, in order to reclaim the company’s image.
Lack of independent labour unions
Unlike many other western countries, Chinese workers have no representative labour unions to rely on. It is illegal to form any independent labour
unions in China, therefore the only authority workers can seek help from is labour unions managed and controlled by the government. Members of these official labour unions are not elected by workers, and they tend to forsake workers’ rights and collude with business owners in order to attract foreign investment. Worse still, local authorities and police often defend manufacturers’ interest for the sake of maintaining social stability. They thus repress any forms of workers movement by using arms and forces. The labour group, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) reported that in Yue Yuen workers’ strike, the local authority engaged with the company by sending several hundred police to suppress the strike. CLB reported that around ten protestors were arrested during the strike. Four workers were also beaten up by local police.
According to a report conducted by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong based NGO that promotes the rights of workers in China, 1,171 workers strikes and protests took place between June 2011 and December 2013. The number is obtained from official media coverage, so the actual number is possibly higher.
Suppression against labour rights groups by authority
The significant upsurge of Chinese workers’ movements in recent years unveils the dark side behind the prosperity of this economic giant, which was
hard hit by global economic crisis. Due to a decreasing demand for consumer goods, many manufacturers have to lower the cost of production to maintain profits. Some have to relocate their factories to places with lower labour cost such as Cambodia and Bangladesh. Some cannot survive through the economic downturn and succumb to closure. These failed manufacture often underpay workers an adequate amount of compensation and some even flee their factories without paying. Meanwhile, the remaining ones use legal loopholes as a way to lower the labour cost.
The lack of effective and independent labour unions encouraged the formation of non-government labour rights group, such as Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service, which provided legal assistance to the Yue Yuen striking workers. The government, however, uses various means to crack down these non-governmental rights groups. It is reported that Lin Dong and Zhang Zhiru, members of Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service and labour rights advocates, were detained by police during Yue Yuen strike.
According to the official announcement by Yue Yuen factory, the strike has already been settled last week and most workers resumed work after the company has promised to reimburse workers all the amount of underpaid insurance by 2015. However, media have suspected that the strike was ceased forcibly by police force instead of being settled with comprise between the two sides.
The rise of awareness of labour rights
Though being suppressed by the local authority, Yue Yuen workers’ strike exemplifies an increasing workers unity in China. According to media report, the number of worker participants increased from 1,000 on 5 April to over 40,000 within a week. The scale and efficiency of the movement is remarkable, considering that it was not organized by any effective labour unions. According to CWI, workers made use of social messaging groups to communicate and exchange information about the movement. Despite of censorship that hinders coverage of the movement by traditional media, labour groups and activists reported the stories by using the Chinese social media and platforms such as Weibo.
It is still uncertain whether workers in Yue Yuen factory would be able to get back their promised pensions and insurance. However, the strike is a successful labour movement as it has gained international media coverage and demonstrated a rising labour power. It is a heads-up to both Chinese labour, foreign-invested manufacture and the Chinese government.
Beijing should recognize that suppression is no longer an effective way to settle labour disputes in China. Foreign-invested manufacture, on the other hand, should establish efficient dialogues with workers and respect workers’ rights, which is the basic business ethics they should comply with.
Photos: Sofie Ejdrup Larsen, and Weibo.com