Massive strikes show tech-savvy Chinese labour is thinking big

A price worth paying? EPA

If China is the world’s factory, then one of its core production lines is playing up. Last month, mass protests kicked off in the southern manufacturing city of Dongguan. Some 40,000 workers went on strike, all from the same massive footwear factory operated by Yue Yuen Industrial, a supplier of shoes for global brands such as Adidas and Nike.

It wasn’t just the sheer number of participants that made the Yue Yuen strikes so notable. These protests were a demonstration of Chinese workers’ increasing sense of autonomy and their ability to connect with fellow workers and initiate large-scale collective action.

Labour disputes in China occur more frequently than many people outside of the country realise. But thus far, strikes have mainly focused on wages. Winning a better salary was the goal and once workers had more money in their pocket they tended to be happy. Industrial actions didn’t usually to lead to longer-term campaigns organised by workers’ committees with wider mandates. The leaders of many grassroots labour organisations in China had therefore been rather pessimistic about the prospects of increasing a wider sense of workers’ consciousness.

However, this time things were different. One big grievance was over the legitimacy of their contracts, as many Yue Yuen workers realised their deals were only temporary – not what they had been told when first recruited.

They also made full “social insurance” coverage a key demand. Social insurance was introduced by law in 2011 and requires employers to buy a package of insurance for their staff, covering pensions, healthcare, workplace injuries, unemployment and maternity benefits. However in Yue Yuen’s case, the factory may have received local officials’ “silent approval” not to provide the whole package. Such silent approval represents an indirect way for local officials to attract or keep foreign investment.

These issues are still wage-related, of course, but things are changing. One major study of Chinese labour disputes in 2011-2013 found just 6% of factory workers listed social insurance as a key demand: expect this to increase, as wages rise and the focus moves towards other demands. Yue Yuen reflects deeper problems among the Chinese manual labour force, worries that they are not protected by the social insurance net or a proper employment contract.

From anger to antagonism

In making the leap from angry individuals to effective collective action, workers at the plant were assisted by China’s developing civil society and communication tools.

Throughout the strike, workers were assisted by a local labour organisation known as Spring Breeze (Chunfeng, in Mandarin), lead by Zhang Zhiru, a noted self-taught lawyer and workers’ rights campaigner. Workers at the factory first contacted Spring Breeze for legal information on organising a bigger size of collective action, but when I spoke to Zhang recently, he told me that initially nobody expected the action would develop into such a large strike.

But China’s well-developed social media networks helped to spread the word. Factory workers first contacted Zhang through QQ, a popular messaging system with more users than Twitter. QQ, WeChat and other online messaging systems are a cheap and easy way to make connections, often away from the government’s eye, and as such represent an important development for workers hoping to organise collective action. The government certainly understands the situation. However, so far it can only limit internet access in China; it can’t really ban social media, giving workers a space to network and organise.

So what now?

So will the Yue Yuen strike represent a turning point for the Chinese workers’ movement? In organisational terms, it was certainly impressive. But, in common with most disputes in country, the strikers didn’t organise a workers’ committee afterwards. This was mainly due to government intimidation though, such as the arrest of Lin Dong (since released), a Spring Breeze worker who made a great contribution to the strikes.

However, Yue Yuen represents at least a very bold challenge to a deeply intertwined interests of local officials and investors. The way that the factory overlooked the social insurance policy can’t be possibly unknown to local government. However, officials chose to turn a blind eye to such practices. After all, they still want to attract investment.

But now the local government will be forced to open its eyes and regulate the factory more forcefully. Factory managers must also realise that workers can and will unite together, if there is a common goal.

For now, the strike has stopped. Nike AirMax fans need not worry. But Zhang tells me Yue Yuen’s workers will be closely watching whether the factory will keep its promises. If not, they are prepared for further action. This strike may not have initiated true collective bargaining, but the collective strength of workers has certainly been seen and acknowledged.