China's Worker Protests: A Second Wave of Labor Unrest?

— Wong Kam Yan

THERE HAS BEEN a 30% rise in collective riots in China in recent years.  Whereas in 1993, there were 10,000 reported cases with 700,000 participants, in 2003 it jumped to 60,000 with 3 million participants.  Among these examples, labor unrest has been quite outstanding, though it is difficult to get official statistics.

The first wave of labor protest was mainly by workers in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) against outright privatization or restructuring into modern enterprises.  It started in the early 1990s, and by the turn of the twenty-first century it became sharper and involved more workers.  The DaQing oil field and the LiaoYang example have been the most widely reported cases.

In March 2002, 50,000 oil workers at the DaQing oil field protested for many days against downsizing.  The oil industry had undergone immense restructuring to compete with foreign oil giants in the domestic market.  Earlier, in 2001 a metal plant in LiaoYang, located in the North East as is the DaQing field, went bankrupt with public property looted by management and local officials.  Workers took to the streets to protest.

Whereas the DaQing case was outstanding for the large number of protesters and their call for independent trade unions, the LiaoYang case was spectacular for its effort in trying to link up with other factory workers to fight against privatization.

Both cases were severely suppressed by the authorities, and LiaoYang had its two central leaders sentenced to between four and seven years imprisonment.  The Liao Yang factory was subsequently bankrupted.  For the oil industry, eventually 600,000 oil workers were sacked.

There may be hundreds or even thousands of cases of SOEs workers fighting back in the last ten years, but generally they have lost the battles.  Up to 30 million SOEs workers were sacked, and women workers were generally the first to go. Between 1993 and 2003, SOEs industrial output in relation to total industrial output went down from 47% to 38%.

Under the policy of "retaining the large (SOEs), letting the small go" (in fact many medium SOEs have been let go as well), many medium and small enterprises had been privatized.  As for big SOEs, they have been restructured as commercial entities whose ultimate ambition is to transform themselves into Trans National Corporations (TNCs) and compete in the global market with Mobile, or Fords.  Whether they can succeed is another matter.

The New Working Class

While SOEs workers were sacked in huge numbers and their ranks transformed in terms of age, working conditions and experiences, a new working class has been in formation in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), mainly located in the Pearl Delta.

There are some 800 EPZs all over the world, employing approximately 30 million workers.  The Chinese EPZs employ about 20 million, two-thirds of the world total.

These figures speak for the fact that China has become the favorite haven for TNCs Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), for in the EPZs workers work 12-14 hours a day for a minimum wage, enough only to buy three bowls of noodles a day. From these EPZs incredibly cheap Chinese products are exported to the world market, causing deindustralization abroad, and plants moving to China from many countries.

This is a double loss, for both the international working class and for the Chinese working class: While the former lose their better paid jobs, the latter do not reap the benefit, but rather only get nasty jobs under terrible working conditions.

These EPZs workers accept such horrible working conditions because they are mainly rural migrant workers who have nowhere else to go to earn a living.  Thanks to the 1949 revolution, and in fact one of the few social conquests of the revolution not overturned during the 15-year long capitalist restoration, peasants still possess small pieces of land, but these are simply not large enough for survival.  Parents have to send their children to work in the cities.

Daughters have much better chances for getting jobs in the EPZs because the bosses prefer young women, for they are perceived to be more passive and able to endure long hours of hard work.  Women workers account for 70% of the workforce there.

While SOEs workers have largely been defeated in their fight against privatization, there has been a rise in strikes and protests in the EPZs.  According to official figures Shenzhen, a big migrant city close to Hong Kong, experienced labor protests involving 300,000 workers in 2004.  In the last year, there were more than a dozen reported strikes and road blockades in Guangdong province alone.  Numerous other examples of unrest have gone unreported.

In July 2004, it was reported that two battery factories on Mainland China had poisoned at least 370 workers with cadmium.  The two factories belong to the Gold Peak Industrial Holding Ltd, a Hong Kong and Singapore based Asian TNC; its electronic products are sold all over the world under different brand names.

The affected workers were paid little compensation, and at one point were even threatened by the company and the local authority that if they petitioned the central government in Beijing again they might end up with criminal charges.

The workers managed to fight back.  Since then several strikes and road blockades, the only way to make their voices heard, were launched.  Women workers have taken the lead in these actions.

Globalization Monitor, a Hong Kong-based NGO, has since taken up the case and has been campaigning against the company.  It has gained support from many trade unions and NGOs in demanding that Gold Peak set up a Hong Kong-based medical fund to take care of the workers.

On August 5, the company finally yielded to the pressure from workers and Hong Kong campaigners, and announced the setting up of a 10 million HK dollars fund.  The Hong Kong intervention was important in seizing concession from Gold Peak.  Without it the workers' struggle might not have been sustained or reported.  The same goes for the Stella case that we deal with below.  Hong Kong has been crucial to the bureaucracy in its capitalist project, but may also be instrumental in the future for the Chinese labor movement: Hong Kong is the only Chinese city that enjoys freedom of speech and partial electoral rights.

The Violent Stella Strike

Stella is a Taiwanese-owned company making shoes for Nike and other big brands.  Two factories under the Stella Company repeatedly paid their workers less than had been agreed.  On April 21, 2004, workers in one factory saw their wages being cut again, and 1000 workers immediately responded with a riot: machines were smashed, cars overturned, and supervisors beaten up.

Two days later in another factory the same thing happened, but this time with even more violence.  Three thousand workers broke into the plants and smashed everything.  Police arrived but were outnumbered.  The next day more riot police were sent in. Eventually ten workers were charged and sentenced to three to three and a half years jail.  Several dozen workers were sacked by the two factories.  All workers were later released in early 2005 after labor activists in Hong Kong and the United States campaigned for them.

Although there have been numerous strikes in the EPZs, little organization follows, even when the action succeeds in forcing concessions from management.  Strikes break out spontaneously and then end abruptly after repression or some concessions from the management.  This is because these rural migrants have little understanding of trade unionism, and their thinking is still lacking collective identity as workers, hampering their ability to organize in the long term.  It is these circumstances which make the Uniden case so significant.

Uniden: First Conscious Organizing?

Uniden is a Japanese electronics firm, which has operated in China since 1987.  It is a big company with 12,000 workers.  The basic monthly salary for ordinary workers was 480 RMB, which is hardly enough for survival.  In order to get 800 RMB, workers had to increase their hours with overtime to up to 12 hours a day.

Such low wages had always been the chief grievance.  Another complaint was bad food provided by the plant canteen.  This and other grievances finally triggered off a big strike on December 10, 2004.  One of the activists wrote: "In the morning when we went to work we all got a handbill in our lockers.  We all understood that something was going to happen.  And then at 4pm workers started walking out from the assembly line.  Just imagine how it looks when 10,000 workers gathered together, if it had not been the case that things had gone far beyond their physical endurance, these women in their teens would not have walked out, but rather would have continued working like robots."

Since that time and until April 2005, five strikes have been organized—and they were indeed organized, they did not spring up spontaneously.  Indeed, workers in Uniden did something very rare among EPZs workers: They called for the founding of trade unions.  A preparatory committee has been set up and is functioning.

The reason for this is chiefly the fact that middle-ranking technicians and skilled workers had been in the forefront of the organizing effort, people who probably came mainly from the cities.  They circulated handbills among fellow workers, placed their demands and reports on the internet, a skill with which rural migrant workers are largely unfamiliar.

Rural migrant workers may have many grievances, but our interview with Uniden workers confirmed that it was the layer of technicians and more skilled workers who gave leadership and more conscious direction.  What makes the Uniden case so special, then, is these middle ranking technicians and skilled workers uniting with rural migrant workers, in contrast to the Stella case where the ordinary workers simply rioted without any serious leadership, nor even very clear demands.

Left to their own devices, even in cases where some migrant workers raise demands, these tend to be quite narrow, targeting only the specific things which concern individual workers, with little awareness of the need to generalize demands so as to encompass all workers and build solidarity.

However, the demands of the Uniden workers were much more clear:

  1. Basic wages should be in line with the minimum wages as stipulated by law;
  2. The company must pay for workers basic insurance as stipulated by law;
  3. Women workers to receive one month's maternity leave;
  4. Compensation for overtime should be 150-300% of basic wages;
  5. No compulsory overtime as stipulated by law;
  6. Workers shall set up their own trade union;
  7. No deduction of wages when workers take sick leave;
  8. Food and housing allowances;
  9. Increase wages according to seniority.

On April 20, 2005 Uniden workers struck again, this time coinciding with the anti-Japanese movement [angry protests against Japan refusal to acknowledge its brutal occupation of China during the 1930s and World War II ed.].  Given the general sentiment at the time, the strike soon turned more radical; not only was the right to form trade unions raised, but during actions some windows were smashed as well.  The strike soon faced police repression, as had happened during the past four strikes, with leaders arrested, jailed, or sacked.

The Washington Post reported a woman worker as saying,"Some officials from the local labor department told us we had to cooperate, or else investors may withdraw and move to somewhere else and we will be thrown out of our jobs."  Will such threats deter workers from protesting in the future?

We need to wait and see. But back in December 2004, when the first strike occurred, a woman worker was reported saying, "If we were men, there would have been a strike a long time ago. Women are easier to bully, but we have hearts of steel."  (New York Times, 16 December 2004).

As usual, there are still many details we simply do not know, and readers have to make allowance for the lack of detail, since under severe censorship it is extremely hard to verify facts.  (Corrections from reliable sources would be welcome.) Still, from different sources we can more or less figure out the general outline of the situation, significantly that a more conscious effort to organize has been taken.

There are of course numerous unanswered questions: Why have technicians in other cases not taken the leadership as the Uniden technicians did?  Is the fact that Uniden is Japanese-owned significant?  What are the other factors?  Is Uniden a special case?  What is the fate of the jailed workers?

The Future

In contrast to the workers sacked by the SOEs, the EPZs workers are badly needed by companies, who suffer from a labor shortage.  This difference gives the EPZs workers an advantage.  Given that the real wages of the EPZs workers have gone down over the past fifteen years, and conditions are worse than sweatshops in Indonesia, it is highly likely that there will be more struggles from this new working class in the years ahead.

Still, it is a long march from spontaneous struggle to organized strike, given the disadvantages which rural migrants face.  The Uniden case may be an example, but it may take some time before this is duplicated.  And without organizing, despite their heroic and spontaneous struggles, the EPZs workers will get little long term achievement.

However, when assessing the potential for struggle one must not only look at the workers.  The situation in the whole of China must be taken into consideration: After more than twenty years of rapid growth, China may be entering a new period, simply because the enormous growth rates have been sustained only at terrible human, social and environmental costs, in addition to paying enormous interest on public debt.  And under WTO accession requirements, the domestic markets will have to open up in 2007.

All this is unsustainable in the long run. Indeed it has already been unsustainable in certain sectors.  And the new Chinese Communist Party leadership will not be able to manage all these problems.  For of course they themselves are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The late former general secretary Zhao Ziyang, on his deathbed, prophesized that China, just like the old dynasties, will not be capable of self reform and the date for sudden collapse may not be far away.  We may add that, when there is a ruling crisis, a sudden leap of consciousness may happen amongst this new proletariat in the making.

It is critical that the international labor movement prepare for solidarity with future rebellions of the Chinese workers.  China has a working class 200 million strong.  The working class may be declining in some parts of the world but in other areas it is growing—its distribution across the globe is in constant change.  Only with solidarity between the Chinese and the international working class can the mad global race to the bottom waged by capital be stopped and reversed.


Wong Kam Yan is the pen name of a Hong Kong-based labor solidarity activist and researcher.

ATC 121, March-April 2006