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Chinese workers at heart of protests

J.Y. Hodge

January 17, 2013

In April 2012, a group of jewelry workers in Guangzhou barged into their factory manager’s office demanding payment of long-denied pension contributions.


The manager called the police and had them imprisoned, a historically typical story of Chinese labour dispute resolution. However, in this case, the workers’ colleagues, rather than acquiescing, rallied and demanded their co-workers’ release, as well as denouncing the company’s refusal to fund their pension. At the end of it, the company caved and acceded to all the workers’ demands.


In December, on the central East coast, in Jiangsu province, over 1,000 ship workers struck for two days against the internationally-owned Jiangsu Eastern Shipyard over the lack of payment of five months’ back wages. The strikers blocked the national expressway and the accompanying bridge over the Yangtze river, the major waterway in the country. The enterprise is typical of modern Chinese industry in that the vast majority of the employees are sub-contracted through labour agencies while a small number are formal employees who enjoy better wages and job security. Both groups of workers struck over arrears as the formal employees’ learned from the sub-contractors’ protest that fighting back could win. As one said to China Labour Bulletin: “After the sub-contractors protested, the local government only cared about their problems and ignored ours. Neither the trade union nor the labour bureau helped us get our salary back.”


Also in December, hundreds of kilometers inland, approximately 600 workers at a state-owned oil firm in Shaanxi protested over unequal pay and the use of agency labour and they won collective bargaining rights in what is believed to be the first case of collective bargaining in a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). Through December 2012 to January 9, 2013, when this research was done, the China Labour Bulletin online strike map ( records 56 incidents—including taxi strikes in two provinces, industrial workers, sanitation, transport, healthcare, and teachers all leading job actions.


What do these events have in common? A sustained militancy that long-time observers argue has been absent for a generation or more.


Chinese workers are now typically involved in upwards of 30,000 workplace actions a year. The country’s labour arbitration and mediation committees (the state’s institutions of redress) handled over a million cases in 2010 alone. Actions are being led by a new generation of migrant workers who are younger, better educated and more articulate, and coming with higher expectations than the previous generation.


At a time of growing domestic wealth and consumption in China, workers are demanding a larger share of what they produce. The relatively high cost of living in urban areas, combined with the lack of respect accorded to migrants considered to be rural dwellers rankles many. Additionally, the government has made repeated announcements in recent years about programs to bridge the wealth divide. So many workers are taking the rhetoric at face value when confronted with harsh realities. Minimum wages have increased in some jurisdictions by as much as 30 per cent, yet workers in those areas continue to find themselves with nothing in their pockets at month-end but debtor’s notes.


Such militancy is a welcome change and hopefully the harbinger of a renewed and combative workers movement in China. But the overall context remains poor. Chinese workers continue to have very limited economic prospects and almost none of the rights that are taken for granted in Canada. Most protests are ostensibly spontaneous and dissolve once grievances are addressed, leaving little material legacy of organizational skill and memory of struggle to lay the foundation for a sustained fight-back.


Analogously, the official trade union federation and the bulk of Chinese workers have little in common—this is possibly a good thing for workers, as the ACFTU has long been an arm of the state, the same state that decided what your education and job would be, and where you would work. The ACFTU’s official position for many years was to work with the state to increase labour productivity. This does not sound like an organization shaped to lead worker’s struggles.


However, the new Chinese militancy shows no signs of withering. The state has argued that it needs to increase domestic consumption and that can only happen with improvements in domestic wages and working conditions. The time, then, is ripe for a newly confident workforce to exploit the change in the wind and produce a storm for its own rights and freedoms.

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