Last month, thousands of workers at the Yue Yuen shoe factory in Dongguan in Southern China—a supplier to Adidas and other Western brands—walked off the job in a dispute with management over wages and benefits, clashing with police and jamming production.
A few years ago, such a major strike at a factory on mainland China might have been international news. But these days, such uprisings are part of the daily rhythms of working life in China, pulsating with growing labor militancy.
The Yue Yuen protest was both spontaneous and strategic, targeted at what workers saw as their employer’s failure to hold up their end of the social contract. Since their grievances are driven by social policy as well as their employer’s alleged exploitation, these strikes represent the sharp edge of a deeper undercurrent of social strife.
According to New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW), the workers moved quickly to strike, before their demands were fully formulated, and it appears that the dispute remains at an impasse. The action was triggered by the company’s announced plans to restructure by merging two local plants, which many feared would lead to unilaterally breaking their contracts and slashing jobs. Workers were also angry over the company’s reportedly unexplained cuts to their annual bonus, which makes up a major part of a worker’s yearly income.
CLW reported that “During the strike, the company union collected demands from participating workers to present to management,” but Yue Yuen contended that “the merger would only apply to the office staff” and a plants logistics unit, not production workers. One worker told CLW that workers remained defiant, since they “perceive this change as a progressive step toward movement of Yue Yuen operations out of Dongguan toward Southeast Asia. Workers expect that the downsizing in the Dongguan operations will only continue, and most workers want to resign now with a payout of their housing fund.”
The strike was a reprise of an historic mass strike last year, involving tens of thousands of Yue Yuen workers. Though that uprising ended quietly with a compromise with management, it helped galvanize rising labor militancy in the southern Chinese manufacturing sector, and, at least nominal promises of reform (yet unfulfilled) from the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions.