Strikers take on the bosses
When more than 7,000 workers downed tools and walked off the job at a shoe factory in Guangdong last month, they were thinking of colleagues like Song Wenya.
Song had just turned 16 when she started work at the enormous factory - one of the world's biggest shoemakers - near Dongguan in 1993. Over the next 18 years, she worked hard and diligently, becoming a supervisor of 200 workers.
The pay was low, but she thought she was being rewarded with respect and job security - enough to start a family and build a life around the Taiwanese-owned Dongguan Huangjiang Yue Yuan Industrial Park, a self-contained mini-city of 220,000 square metres built to house the thousands of workers who produce a large share of the world's sneakers and electronic products.
That all changed on October 27. Her boss suddenly sent her packing, telling her not to set foot in the plant, where her husband also worked. With the economies of the United States and Europe struggling, fewer customers were ordering sneakers made in China and management was in a frenzy to cut labour costs. Her boss handed her compensation of 50,000 yuan (HK$61,000).
The life she had known was over, and when her son asked why he had to say goodbye to friends and change schools, she choked back tears.
Seventeen other supervisors were retrenched that day. One of them, a 48-year-old man from Anhui province, said: 'It came so suddenly that none of us were prepared for this. We were called into a room for a meeting, but notices of our redundancy were already posted in production plants before the meeting was even over.'
The plant's workforce was appalled; some called it 'brutal and ruthless', and feared it was a prelude to something worse: the long rumoured relocation of the entire plant to Jiangxi province.
On November 17, workers' anger reached boiling point, and one of the biggest strikes yet seen in the industrial heartland of the Pearl River Delta began. The 7,000-plus workers surrounded the plant and blockaded Huangjiang's main road. Dozens were injured in clashes with police and local public-security squads.
Ai Jinhu, a 26-year-old worker from Gansu province, said it was the extreme measures to cut labour costs that ignited workers' pent-up anger.
'Production lines were required to produce 120 pairs of New Balance sneakers every hour,' Ai said. 'Failure to do so would mean no bonus, or workers clocking up extra personal time to make up for the set quota, without pay.'
Ai, a former soldier, dreamed of getting away from poverty-stricken Gansu to make a career in affluent Guangdong, but the Pearl River Delta did not live up to his expectations.
'One of our managers served the company for 18 years but was treated as a thief and barred from the plant by security guards the very next day she was sacked,' he said, referring to Song. 'Being in an environment like that makes people easily forget what they are worth.
'What hopes do we have if even the longest-serving staff members are treated like that? There is nothing else left waiting for us but more work. Life seems to have lost its meaning towards the end of that production line. There is only hopelessness.
'We are pressed to strike when living on the bare minimum becomes difficult.'
It was just one of many strikes to hit the Pearl River and Yangtze River deltas in recent months. Many firms reacted to the global economic slowdown by cutting costs through redundancies and cuts to pay and bonuses. Many workers have reacted by staging walkouts from assembly lines.
In plant after plant since mid-October, workers with grievances over their employers' cost-cutting have been fighting back.
Workers at Shenzhen Hailiang Storage Products, a Hitachi-affiliated plant in Guangdong, protested against their lack of job security after an American company acquired the firm.
At the Singaporean-owned Hi-P International electronics plant in Shanghai, hundreds of workers, mainly women, went on strike over plans to move the factory to the outskirts of the city.
About 2,000 workers protested against wage deductions at the Guanxing Precision Machinery Product Factory in Shenzhen, affiliated with Japanese watchmaker Citizen.
There were at least 80,000 strike incidents in 2009, and 100,000 last year, according to He Yuancheng, editor of an online labour forum. He said workers typically went on strike because there was a lack of labour unions or organisations to genuinely represent their interests.
'We are expecting this year's figure to grow too,' He said.
Despite the unrest, He said most workers were realistic: they knew to expect only minimal pay increases.
'Workers are well aware of the impact that a slumbering global economy has for their employers this year, as they also noticed how workloads had been reduced. They only hope to secure last year's pay to get by,' He said.
Factory workers across Guangdong say their salaries ranged between 1,800 to 1,900 yuan last year. In recent months that's dropped to about 1,100 to 1,300 yuan. 'Another year has passed, but we are still broke as hell,' said a worker from Hunan who refused to be identified as he and his wife still work in the Huangjiang Yue Yuan plant. 'How many lunch boxes can we buy with 1,000 yuan when rent and groceries have taken away more than half of our salary?'
The worker said vegetarian lunch boxes were sold for about eight yuan each near the factory and those that included some minced meat cost at least 10 yuan.
Guan Tieliu, a Shenzhen-based rights lawyer, said cutting labour costs was employers' first response to declining business. 'The strikes we are seeing this year are very much different to those of last year's,' Guan said, referring to a wave of strikes that affected Japanese carmakers last year.
One of the most closely watched of those car industry incidents erupted last summer in Nanhai district in the Pearl River Delta city of Foshan when Honda workers demanded higher wages after years without pay rises. They staged a series of remarkable and contagious strikes against unfair wages that spread to other car and parts makers across the mainland.
Local media reported that Honda lost more than two billion yuan during the strike. Observers said Honda could easily have avoided paying that huge price by quickly granting workers a pay rise - as the company eventually did: a 30 per cent increase plus bonuses to about 1,800 workers. It's expected to cost Honda just 20 million yuan a year.
Dr Huang Yan, assistant professor of public administration at South China Normal University, said the strikes that hit the car industry last year were not related to global economic factors. 'Workers were mostly targeting unfair wages and years of no pay increments,' Huang said.
'Labour tensions arose this year mostly because corporations are restructuring business models and relocating production plants away from the Pearl River Delta to more remote and less costly regions. This is particularly evident in shoe and toy factories,' he said.
Minimum wages in places like Jiangxi province ranged between 700 and 800 yuan, he said - roughly half of the going rate in the Pearl River Delta.
The number and intensity of industrial disputes were likely to keep growing so long as employers continue to try to cut costs by retrenching workers and avoiding paying fair compensation, Huang said.
'Relocating production plants and upgrading products as well as business models are what the Guangdong province has been advocating for years,' Huang said. 'It's a major trend and no one can stop it. Most factories will not be able to hang in for much longer without making a move or change, as preferential policies are no longer given.'
Huang warned that workers should brace themselves for more painful experiences, such as more pay cuts and redundancies.
'There is no gain for workers in this game. After decades of investment, the only good thing Huangjiang Yue Yuan has brought to China was to help a few local sport-shoes brand names to grow, but there was no improvement of labour rights at all,' he said. 'It's a losing game for workers because it was too hard for their employers to kiss goodbye their high profit margins, which have long been relying on labour exploitation.'
Of all the strikes, the one staged by the Citizen workers sent the biggest chill down the spines of stability-obsessed government officials.
The strike was not violent, but it was one of the most organised.
Labour observers branded it '2011's flagship strike' and said it represented a historic high for the mainland's labour movement.
'Last year's Honda strike can be understood as Chinese workers' first baby step towards awareness of their rights to set up their own independent unions,' He said. 'But this year's Guanxing strike is the first pure market behaviour, initiated and executed by workers themselves, to battle for negotiation, electing 12 representatives and successfully bargaining 70 per cent of the overtime payment from their employer.
'They have done it all by themselves from the beginning to the end. This has cheered many local labour observers and scholars.'
As some headlines put it, the issue at the watchmaker was time: the factory's 1,178 workers were incensed that the factory had deducted 40 minutes from their time cards every day since 2005 to account for washroom breaks.
Xinhua reported the strike was sparked on October 16, when factory managers announced a change in how wages were calculated, from a piece-rate-based to a time-based system.
The workers rebelled, demanding their legal rights and repayment of their docked wages. They struck the next day and stayed out for 11 days.
Even after their return to work, however, productivity was only 30 per cent of previous output because the core issue of the pay deductions was still unresolved.
On November 6, 10 worker representatives, carrying 584 workers' signatures, approached Shenzhen-based labour rights lawyers for help.
Two days later, workers put in a request to their employers to negotiate the deducted pay.
They began their first round of negotiation with Guanxing factory on November 13, with five representatives from each side. After sessions of roundtable discussion, the two sides finally reached an agreement that workers would be paid 70 per cent of the docked wages.
'This is really a marvellous achievement by workers,' said editor He.
'From Honda and Guanxing workers, we see a possibility of opening rights to workers for them to represent themselves in collective bargaining.'
The number of hours that workers at the Shanghai plant of electronics firm Hi-P international are made to work in a day