New Strike Wave Hits China

A building security guard tries to block a photo of a group of Chinese restaurant staff staging a sit-in protest at the lobby of the Full Link Plaza in Beijing on Sept. 4, after the restaurant was lockout by the management. (Photo: Goh Chai Hin / AFP-Getty Images)

On Aug. 22, more than 5,000 workers at a mobile phone component factory in Shenzhen, southern China, struck against their bosses' attempt to increase their work hours without extra pay.

Earlier in the month, 800 miners struck for at least six days in the Tanjiashan coalmine in Hubei province against what they believed to be misappropriation by the management while the mine was privatized, undercutting the miners' redundancy payments.

Meanwhile, workers at the Qingyang Municipal Transport Co. in Gansu province entered their eighth month of protest against unfair dismissal packages. This followed hot on the heels of a June-July strike by more than 3,000 workers in Sichuan province, who protested against their meager redundancy payment while their state-owned employer—the Shuangma Cement Plant—was seeking to sell the firm at knock-down prices to France's Lafarge group.

In the latter three disputes, either company thugs or police were employed to attack striking workers. But in the Shenzhen case, the labor department intervened, seeking to resolve the dispute through negotiations.

Little wonder the standing committee of China's legislature—the National People's Congress (N.P.C.)—worked overtime on Aug. 26 to hear the first reading of a new labor law, which will strengthen the government's ability to "mediate" and "arbitrate," in a clear attempt to dampen the rising tide of workers' unrest.

Even the official organ of the Communist Party's central committee, the People's Daily, has recognized the ongoing tide of workers' actions, noting in its Aug. 27 edition that labor disputes have "continuously" increased in recent years. Quoting N.P.C. statistics, the paper revealed that in the 19 years to 2005, the nation's arbitration network had handled 1.72 million labor disputes, involving 5.32 million workers, representing "a growth rate of 27.3 percent annually," (It didn't say if the growth rate was related to the number of disputes or the number of workers involved.)

Dramatic though they are these statistics don't fully reflect the actual level of labor unrest in China. Disputes not accepted for mediation or arbitration aren't included in the official "labor dispute" statistics compiled by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. For example, the Tanjiashan, Qingyang, and Shuangma disputes are unlikely to be included in the ministry's statistics.

Beijing has also devised a new trick to downplay the 2006 dispute statistics. For the first time, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security reported it helped resolve 130,000 industrial unrest cases during the year before they got to the arbitration stage, thus reducing the "labor disputes" figure for that year from 447,000 cases to 317,000.

Compared to the 314,000 labor dispute cases in 2005, the scaled-down 2006 figure represented an increase of only 9.9 percent rather than the 42.4 percent that it should have been. Even then, more than 680,000 workers were involved in the "official" dispute cases.

Labor disputes have surged ever since China's pro-capitalist measures escalated in the early 1990's, rising from 19,098 cases in 1994 to 314,000 in 2005. The year-on-year growth of such cases in 1997, 1998, and 1999 was particularly sharp—48.6 percent, 30.9 percent, and 28.3 percent respectively—corresponding to the escalating attacks on workers as privatization sped up in 1996-97.

The disputes in 1994 involved 77,794 workers. Three years later, 221,000 workers were involved in disputes, jumping by 62 percent to 359,000 in 1998. The number of workers involved peaked in 2003 at 800,000 but still stayed at a high 740,000 in 2005.

Of the 260,000 labor dispute cases in 2004, 19,000 cases were "collective actions," a jump of 73 percent from 2003. The last time a similarly big surge took place was in 1998, when the "collective" cases rose 65 percent to 6,767 cases, involving 251,000 workers. More than 410,000 workers were involved in the 19,000 collective actions in 2005.

China's labor unrest falls into three main categories. There are workers and pensioners of formerly state-owned firms resisting the wave of privatization that involves attempts to slash or not honor entitlements earned through accepting deflated nominal wages in return for a package of housing, health, and other material provisions.

Then there are workers at foreign-funded or other private Dickensian-like sweatshops, concentrated along China's southern and eastern coasts, which seek to squeeze the last drop out of their workers. The third group comprises mainly casual construction workers involved in the numerous projects that have fueled the country's prolonged construction boom. Wages in arrears is a very serious issue among this third group.

A lot of the workers in the latter two categories are from the rural areas, seeking temporary relief from rural poverty. They are deprived of most urban entitlements and are not allowed to move to the cities on a permanent basis. Various estimates put these rural-to-urban temporary migrants at 100-150 million. They tend to go back to or stay in their rural towns on a regular basis, which is not conducive to getting themselves better organized to fight for their rights.

This partly explains the spontaneous nature of workers' struggles in China over the last two decades. Struggles are mostly based at a single work site or enterprise. The state-controlled official trade unions' key agenda is to pacify the workers rather than defend their rights. Previous attempts to organize independent trade unions, notably in 1989, were violently suppressed.

From Green Left Weekly.