Behind the mainland's biggest strike in decades last month was a new player in labour activism: management.
A previously unpublished account from inside the strike at Taiwanese shoe manufacturer Yue Yuen in Dongguan shows that supervisors were the first to challenge senior plant leaders about the social insurance contributions that became the focus of the dispute. Hong Kong-listed Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings declined to comment.
The involvement of managers underscores the growing complexity and unpredictability of labour relations on the mainland. A generation of long-serving migrant factory employees is starting to retire just as the economy slows and social media makes strikes easier to organise.
Yue Yuen's strike was not the first time in recent years that managers, rather than frontline workers, helped orchestrate industrial action on the mainland. Managers were also involved in leading a strike at IBM's facility in Shenzhen in March, according to a worker and another person briefed on the strike. IBM declined to comment.
According to the account compiled by a labour group, a supervisor at Yue Yuen first raised a complaint about the issue of contributions to social insurance in late March, a few weeks before the strike began.
The supervisor and colleagues spread word among workers, who then went to look up their social insurance contributions. The labour group requested anonymity to protect its relationship with Yue Yuen staff.
A Yue Yuen worker, who declined to give his full name, said low-level managers were involved in pressuring workers to return to work once the company agreed to their demands.
The company told them it would go bankrupt if the managers did not compel the workers to return to work, he said.
During the IBM strike, after a chaotic first day, line managers began to organise the workers, according to an employee who asked not to be identified.
Factory disputes on the mainland typically start with younger employees pushing for higher pay. But in the past few years, as restructurings have become more common, managers have begun to take a more active role in negotiations and stoppages because they have more at stake.
"The reason a mergers and acquisitions transaction, layoffs or restructuring goes sideways or causes labour unrest is that the local management were disgruntled and riled up the rank-and-file workers", said Jonathan Isaacs, a specialist in labour issues at law firm Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong.