Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Echo to the Voice of Chinese workers, Yue Yuen strike

If China is the world factory, then on the 16th of April, there was a great noise coming from the core component of the factory. In Dongguan, the manufacturing city in the south of China, around 40,000 workers came out to protest, all from the footwear factory, Yue Yuen. The strike is a phenomenon not only because of its size, but on various grounds. 

The local grass-roots labour organisation, Spring Breeze (Chunfeng), based both in Shenzhen and Dongguan, was helping workers throughout the strike. According to the leader of Spring Breeze, Mr. Zhang, at the beginning they didn’t expect that this would develop into such a large-scale strike. Spring Breeze’s involvement with Yue yuen workers can be traced back to 5 April, when workers realised that their employer had broken a promise to look into their request about reviewing their social insurance scheme. Workers started to contact Spring Breeze, seeking legal advice, presumably in relation to organising some larger-scale collective action. One of Spring Breeze’s employees, Mr. Lin Dong, was arrested by Dongguan police after the strike, but released afterwards. Although the workers all went back to the production line on Monday 28 April, Mr. Zhang told me that they will still be watching to see whether the factory fulfils its promise to the workers, to start to review all the workers’ social insurance scheme, which is a lengthy and costly business.
What can be seen from this strike, apart from the amazing number of participants, is the autonomy of workers, and also the capacity of workers to connect and initiate a large-scale collective action. The autonomy of workers relates to workers’ consciousness. Many grass-roots labour organisations’ leaders actually expressed quite a pessimistic view of workers’ consciousness in China. The obvious point is that all the strikes so far have been mainly focused on wage increases. Workers have not organised their own workers’ committee after a strike: they have been happy with more money in their pockets. However, this time the trigger for the strike was not entirely about their wages, but about their social insurance policy and also the legitimacy of their contracts: many workers at Yue Yuen realised that their contracts were only temporary, which was not the basis on which they were recruited to the factory. All these issues are still wage-related, but they reflect a deeper problem among the Chinese manual workforce, that they are not protected by the social insurance net or by employment contracts. In the past, most workers chose to be silent but this ‘forced’ silence can’t be kept any more: hence the exploding of the Yue Yuen strike.
It is also important to note that this massive scale of strike received enormous help from well-developed social media in China. Mr. Zhang told me that workers got in contact with him via QQ (a Chinese variant of Twitter). Wechat or QQ have been very widely adopted in China, making it cheaper and easier for people to make connections. This is an important and interesting development for organising any collective action. The government certainly understands the situation; however, the government so far can only limit internet access in China: it can’t really ban these social networks, which perfectly enhance workers’ connection.
There remains a question mark over this strike: can the strike be seen as a revolutionary point for the Chinese workers’ movement? Judged from an organisational point of view, it was well-organised in advance – as the massive turn-out showed – but again, it didn’t lead to the organising of a workers’ committee afterwards, mainly because the government intervened. However, I would argue that this is at least a very bold challenge to the deeply intertwined interests of local officials and investors. The way that the factory neglected the social insurance policy can’t possibly have been unknown to local government, but in order to attract or keep investment, local government chose to close an eye. The Yue Yuen strike at least forced local government to open its eyes and regulate the factory more forcefully, and also forced the factory manager to realise that workers are able to act together, if there is a common target for the workers to protest over. Though for now the strike is over, Mr. Zhang told me that workers are ready to stand up any time, if they realise that the factory has not fulfilled its promise to review their social insurance policy. Although this strike didn’t initiate a collective bargaining structure, the collective strength of workers has certainly been seen and acknowledged.
The content of this blog is also reported on the Conversation:

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