There is a rising tide of anger and determination amongst Chinese workers. In the face of some of the most regressive labour laws in the world, workers are openly striking to demand better wages and the right to form their own representative organisations.
Ignoring threats of “serious consequences” from their bosses, workers at the Honda Lock factory in Zhongshan walked off the job in mid-June and protested outside the factory gates in defiance of riot police. They demanded a 70 per cent pay rise and the right to elect their own representatives. The 1800 Honda workers then openly elected their own factory committee, challenging a ban by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on any independent worker’s organisations.
The Zhongshan workers said that news of successful actions at two other Honda plants in Foshan where strikers won 24 per cent pay increases by halting Honda’s production in Guangdong province, inspired them to agitate for a strike of their own.
International media coverage of the Honda strikes encouraged workers in hotels, textile plants, and workshops across the country to follow their lead. Eight thousand workers at a sports equipment factory in Jiangxi struck in protest after company security guards assaulted a female worker. Around 1000 workers downed tools at the US-owned Flextronics plant in Zhuhai and demanded a pay rise to bring them in line with wages at Foxconn, where several worker suicides earlier this year forced the company to double wages.
Strikes themselves are nothing new in China. But the nature of strikers’ demands in the recent upsurge shows a newfound confidence among sections of the Chinese working class.
Most industrial disputes are defensive with workers striking against their employer’s attacks on minimum wages or basic conditions. This time around, though, many workers are demanding huge wage increases, and significantly many see the need to organise on a wider scale.
The Honda strikers had an organised core of activists who conducted the negotiations with management independently of the official trade union. The workers’ committee from the Honda Lock factory issued an open letter saying, “We must not let the representatives of capital divide us. This factory’s profits are the fruits of our bitter toil.
“This struggle is not just about the interests of our 1800 workers. We also care about the rights and interests of all Chinese workers.”
This sentiment of working class unity appears to be gaining a hold in the minds of many angry workers as internet chat rooms and mobile phones spread messages of solidarity across the country.
Rising expectations have also played a role in building confidence.
New labour laws introduced in 2008 supposedly guarantee contracts for full-time workers along with a set of basic rights. This hurled workers into conflict with bosses, many of whom refused to abide by the new legislation.
Frank Jaeger, a German factory owner in Dongguan complained: “Every worker is a labour lawyer by himself. They know their rights better than my HR officer.”
A new arbitration system, designed to divert workers away from industrial action, was flooded with 700,000 cases in both 2008 and 2009. With the legal system unable to deliver for workers, they instead looked to their own strength.
One young striker from Honda’s Zhongshan factory said, “We heard about the new labour law, but we didn’t know the details. We know we should fight for our rights.”
Real trade unions
The government has so far maintained a cautious silence over the strike wave. Some believe that the government fears that a heavy-handed crackdown would only further unify angry workers.
A series of disconnected, though high profile, strikes may be tolerated. But the formation of independent, worker-elected unions would surely represent a bridge too far for the government. Collective organisation would undermine the low wage economy that makes China “the workshop of the world.”
But rightly, many Chinese workers care little for the interests of capital. As the strike wave surges on, Han Dongfang from China Labour Bulletin, summed up the tasks for the most class conscious Chinese workers, “The only thing that can change [the situation] is to have real trade union[s]”.
Workers at Honda’s Foshan factory are leading the way. Li Xiaojuan, spokeswoman for the factory’s independent workers’ committee described the sentiment among her colleagues, “Everybody should protect their own rights, and sooner or later we will start to build our own independent union”.
Their militancy will boost workers’ confidence across China, and can help unleash a force capable of standing up to China’s repressive state authority—the power of organised workers.