The bellicose news headlines that are spewed daily from the Trump administration might give the impression that most Chinese workers are engaged in just one occupation: collectively sucking the wealth out of America and heaping it into Beijing’s bottomless coffers. But a closer look at China’s workforce reveals that most workers are actually busy dealing with issues closer to home. Take the case of the workers at Jasic Technology’s factory, who are preoccupied not with Trump’s global trade war but with battling for control of their own workplace.
In July, Jasic, a large welding-machinery plant in the southern city of Shenzhen, erupted in protest after the managers tried to thwart a unionization campaign waged by local workers with support from student labor activists. The workers had complained of being treated “like slaves,” robbed of wages, and subjected to “illegal last-minute adjustment of employees’ schedules, an illegal system of fines, underpayment of employees’ housing funds, and the illegal compilation of a blacklist divulging employees’ information.” Initially, the organizers believed they could move forward with unionizing after gaining the approval of the local branch of China’s official labor organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). On July 23, the local Pingshan district branch of the union announced that a deal had been reached to establish a formal union at the Jasic plant.
However, the management soon showed it was less than pleased with the prospect of having to collectively bargain with workers, and below the surface a few business-friendly union officials seemed to agree. So the next day brought yet another shock: a lockout of protesting workers as they cried, “We want to be reinstated! We want to unionize!”
According to the Hong Kong–based watchdog group China Labour Bulletin, Mi Jiuping, a worker and organizer for the Jasic factory, declared in a “now deleted” social-media post: “Is unionising illegal, evil or frightening?… nobody can stop us from building our own union, nobody can destroy our solidarity.”
The standoff has gotten more attention than other worker protests in the country, but such clashes are not unusual in the boom-bust tumult of China’s new coastal manufacturing towns. Shenzhen is a crown jewel of China’s new economic model, one of Guangdong Province’s Special Economic Zones, built on an influx of low-wage rural labor. But recent years have brought a slowdown in urban development in the city, paralleled by increasingly precarious labor conditions.