Workers at a factory in southern China, which makes shoes for Nike and Adidas, have entered their second week of industrial action in one of the largest labour disputes at a single enterprise recent history.
According to US based China Labor Watch (CLW) more than 30,000 employees have been on strike since 14 April at the Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) Ltd factory – the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic shoes – in the city of Dongguan.
Despite threats from the factory’s management that staff could be fired if they fail to return to work, staff at the factory said industrial action would continue until demands for unpaid social insurance and the right to pick their own union were met.
“Management is being too forceful about workers returning to work, saying that beginning on the 24th, if workers swipe their cards and then leave, they will be punished according to absenteeism rules,” one worker told US based China Labour Watch (CLW).
“Workers can only carry out a work stoppage sitting at their positions in the facilities in order to protest and demand a reasonable response from management to workers’ demands.”
On Thursday, Dongguan City Union released an official document pledging its support for the election of worker representatives and negotiation between management and the Yue Yuen staff.
The document also contains official responses to worker demands from the Bureau of Social Insurance, the Bureau of Human Resources, the Housing Fund Management Centre, and Yue Yuen factory’s management.
In its statement, the Bureau of Social Insurance explained that the factory must provide past unpaid social insurance to workers.
However, Yue Yuen management stated that the company reserved the right to fire workers for three days’ absence from work.
On 22 April, two labour activists, Zhang Zhiru and Lin Dong, who entered the factory to assist workers, were detained by local authorities. They are yet to be released.
Kevin Slater, Programme Coordinator for CLW, told Equal Times that the dispute was symbolic of the changing face of labour rights in a country which is experiencing growing unrest as economic growth slows:
“The Yue Yuen strike is emblematic of a confluence of factors that are increasingly defining labour politics in China. Policy changes have made legally enshrined rights like social insurance more salient for workers.
“At the same time, brand companies are asking supplier factories to meet evermore stringent price and time demands, to which the factories ultimately adapt via suppressing labour costs, like social insurance. The Yue Yuen strike also clarifies the need for effective organization and representation of workers in the Chinese workplace.”
Hong Kong-based rights group, China Labour Bulletin (CLB), recorded 202 labour disputes in the country during the first quarter of 2014 – a year-on-year increase of more than 30 per cent.
Geoff Crothall, Communications Director of CLB, predicts industrial action will continue to increase in the future as Chinese workers become more aware of their rights.
“The Yue Yuen strike is important for two reasons: firstly because of the sheer scale of the workers’ action. Up to 40,000 workers participated in the strike, making it one of the largest at single enterprise in recent memory.
“The strike highlights the increasingly important issue of social insurance benefits. For much of the reform era in China, migrant workers in particular simply did not have pensions or any kind of social safety net.
“In the last few years, however, workers have become more aware of their rights to social security and are more determined to claim those rights, particularly as they get older and start thinking about retirement. The issue will only grow in importance in the future.”