Q&A: Strikes on the rise in China with new generation of interconnected workers
A record number of workers have gone on strike in China so far this year.
China Labour Bulletin, a workers’ rights group in Hong Kong, has documented 235 incidents of strikes or worker protests in the second quarter of 2014. This represents a 49 per cent hike over the same period last year, and 180 per cent more than in the same period in 2012.
In April, some 40,000 workers went on strike at the Yue Yuen shoe factory in Dongguan, the largest known strike in China in recent years. In June, worker rights activists marked a rare victory in Shenzhen at a time when the government is pursuing a crackdown on dissenting rights activists, lawyers and bloggers. Prosecutors dropped charges against Wu Guijun, a 40-year-old migrant worker, who has became a towering figure in the workers' movement.
The South China Morning Post sat down with Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin to find out why and how workers in the world’s second-largest economy are becoming more assertive.
Why are we seeing an increased number of strikes and worker protests in China?
One of the key reasons is simply that strikes are much more visible. Just about every factory worker, especially in Guangdong, has a cheap smartphone and can post news about their strike and the response of management and the local government to it on social media and have that information circulate within a matter of minutes.
This enhanced visibility has also encouraged more workers to take strike action. They see workers from other factories or workplaces that are in exactly the same position as them taking strike action and they think “we can do this too.”
And the fact that there are so many strikes means that workers have less to fear by staging protests, there is safety in numbers and in many cases, they have nothing to lose by going out on strike.
Younger workers, especially, have higher expectations and are no longer willing to tolerate the abuse and exploitation their parents had to endure. In the early days of China’s economic growth, workers from the countryside were lining up to get jobs in the cities; today there is a shortage of workers and as such, workers have greater bargaining power and they are better able to utilise that power effectively.
Are you seeing any other trends in the workers' movement?
Workers are increasingly asking the question “Where is the trade union?”. For a long time the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions was seen by workers as a waste of space, not even worth bothering with. But now workers not only have higher expectations of their pay and working conditions but also of the role of the trade union as well. We have seen many cases of workers either demanding the establishment of a democratically elected and democratically run trade union in their workplace or making appeals in person and via social media to the local trade union federations to get involved and help them in their dispute with management.
Another important trend to note is that as industry moves inland and those provinces become more developed, we are seeing more strikes and protests in those areas too. In the past, Guangdong was very much the epicentre of strike action in China but while the number of strikes there has remained at a high level, several other regions are beginning to catch up.
Also, it is certainly not just factory workers who are out on strike, transport workers make up a large proportion of all strikes in China, and shop workers, street cleaners and teachers all stage protests when they have no other option. We are also seeing coal miners go out on strike now as growth in the coal industry slows down.
Are protests an effective tool for Chinese workers to achieve their demands?
The effectiveness of strike action varies considerably from situations where workers get pretty much everything they want to those where they get nothing at all and the strike leaders are fired. The effectiveness of a strike depends on what the workers’ demands are, whether management is willing to negotiate and the stance of the local government.
But the most important factor by far is workers’ solidarity. If the workers are united and refuse to bow to management pressure, their chances of success increase exponentially. The bosses know this too and will often try to divide the workforce by offering incentives to one group and not another. And this is of course why it is essential to have a strong union presence in the workplace to represent and defend the employees.
What is the significance of Wu Guijun’s case?
Wu Guijun is a prime example of what workers can achieve if they remain united and refuse to bow to pressure. Wu is a workers’ leader falsely arrested and charged with social order offences after taking part in a protest in May 2013. Wu never gave up and neither did his family, his colleagues and numerous supporters in the labour movement.
They put so much pressure on the judicial authorities in Shenzhen that the prosecutor finally had to concede that they had no case and Wu was released after just over a year in detention. Last week, the state paid out more than 70,000 yuan in compensation to Wu for loss of earnings during his detention. Since then, we have not seen the authorities in Shenzhen try to prosecute any other workers’ leaders.
What can we expect from Guangdong’s promise to allow democratic trade union elections?
I am not too sure we can expect too much from the union itself, simply because it really lacks the experience and the ability to organise real trade union elections. The workers on the other hand have already shown that in many cases they are willing and able to organise democratic elections among themselves when selecting representatives to negotiate with management.
So the question really is will the Guangdong federation allow workers to drive the process and provide the workers with the backup and support they need or will the Guangdong officials seek to control and manipulate the process. I hope it is the former.