By Jennifer Cheung The strike at the Adidas shoe factory, the sheer scale of it and workers’ increasing skills of organising strikes without bona fide union representation have created a renewed round of debate on how the Chinese authorities will handl …

By Jennifer Cheung

The strike at the Adidas shoe factory, the sheer scale of it and workers’ increasing skills of organising strikes without bona fide union representation have created a renewed round of debate on how the Chinese authorities will handle the increasingly tense industrial relations in China.

Police and workers inside the Yue Yuen complex today. Photo by CLB.

Police and workers inside the Yue Yuen complex today. Photo by CLB.

The nearly two week long strike at the Taiwan owned and Hong Kong listed factory Yue Yuen, dubbed as the largest one in China since the 1970s, motivated 40,000 workers to join, and was organised on workers’ QQ groups, a Chinese online instant chatting tool. Both the government and the official union have later acknowledged the Taiwan owned factory’s mal practice of paying less of workers’ social insurance package, an illegal practice adopted by factory bosses rampantly to save labour costs, who usually do so with impunity. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate whether the outburst of workers’ collective discontent at Yue Yuen is the climax of industrial action in recent years, or is just the beginning.

But the real question for the Chinese government to ponder is what is the best strategy to cope with such wildcat strikes that usually go unmanageable. In Yue Yuen’s case, workers walked outside of the factory compound and marched on nearby streets. Factory production was interrupted and Adidas reportedly had to shift part of its orders from Yue Yuen to minimise the impact of the strike. The deployment of riot police and even military forces to threaten, beat and detain striking workers, or the criminal prosecution of strike leaders could only politicise industrial actions and create more tension between workers and the government, leaving the labour dispute largely unsolved.

The factory unions are neither trusted by workers nor responsive to workers’ complaints before it is too late. The enterprise union committee is usually made up of management, whose interests most of times side with employers rather than with file and rank workers. In Yue Yuen’s case, workers interviewed by China Labour Bulletin said they never saw any union staff, did not know who the union chairman is, nor did they care about what unions say.

The official union controlled by the communist party, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), is often seen juggling its roles of maintaining social stability and its rubber stamp function of representing the 270 million migrant workforces. It has been rolling out enterprise union reform by allowing democratic elections in grassroots unions and have conducted experiments and pilot projects in Pearl River Delta based factories, but the efficacy of those reforms has various interpretations. Both the official union and the employer fear workers would elect the ‘wrong guy’, who neither help the official union foster stability nor help the employer maintain a loyal and productive workforce. Last year, the democratically elected union chairman asked for resignation due to pressures from all sides. Workers are not won over by the official union either. It is reported by The Economist that Yue Yuen workers tore up mediation letters sent to them by the government backed union.

Labour NGOs that provide legal advice and collective bargaining trainings to workers are in a friend-and-foe situation with the government authorities. On one hand, the government wants labour NGOs to help cultivate a skilled and educated workforce, in another word, ‘manageable’ workforce; on the other, the government does not want them to stay too close to workers and become ‘trouble makers’. The ‘enforced vacation’ of labour rights advocate Zhang Zhiru illustrated this point. Zhang told Reuters he and another colleague at Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service Center were detained by security police when they were helping workers organise and press their demands. The security police tried to persuade Zhang to stay away from Yue Yuen workers, but Zhang refused. Zhang was then taken to a “vacation area” in the suburbs of nearby Guangzhou, where Zhang was confined to a room and cut off from external communications for over two days.

As the strike at Yue Yuen gradually recedes, Guangdong provincial trade union chairman Huang Yebin told Southern Daily that trade unions at all levels represent workers interest and have negotiated with the employer, who also agreed to pay the full social insurance package. Huang claimed by April 27, 90 percent of Yue Yuen workers have returned to work, but workers may think otherwise.

It remains to be seen whether the official trade union’s offer can satisfy workers’ demand (at least temporarily), and whether workers’ demand will go beyond salary increase and pension to include entitlement to self-governance and industrial democracy. Historical insights in western countries such as the United States show that long-lasting labour unrest eventually forced governments to compromise and grant workers the right to set up independent unions and the right to collective bargaining. In China’s case, the party state’s experiment on the best strategy to secure industrial peace, including democratic union elections, will also shed some light on how it would achieve its unswerving priority of maintaining social stability in general.

Jennifer Cheung is China coordinator for USi.

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Jennifer Zhang

Jennifer Zhang is USi’s China coordinator based in Hong Kong.

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