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China: labour disputes soar
Workers at six out of ten factories in Dongguan, China, owned by Taiwanese multinational Yue Yuen have taken strike action after discovering the company has not been paying legally required levels of social security and housing contributions.
The strike is emblematic of a new wave of labour struggles especially in Guangdong, where Dongguan is located, and other developed regions of China.
Samsung, Lenovo, Nokia and Wal-Mart are among the companies hit by recent stoppages. Strikes are up by almost one third in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same period last year.
Dongguan, known as "the world's factory" has a workforce of around ten million. In recent years it has been badly hit by the global crisis and downturn in China's traditional export markets.
The city has experienced several large strikes over severance pay, wage arrears and non-payment of so-called fringe benefits.
The latest Yue Yuen strike involves tens of thousands of workers. Media reports give contradictory figures.
This is to be expected given the fog of official censorship, while strikes are of course illegal in China.
According to NGO activist Zhang Zhiru, who is in contact with strike organisers, more than 30,000 workers went on strike on Monday 14 April, with more joining on Tuesday.
The Global Times, which presumably has its own sources within the security agencies, also puts the number of strikers at 40,000.
Yue Yuen's website boasts it is "the world's largest branded footwear manufacturer" churning out 300 million pairs of shoes a year for Nike, Adidas, Reebok, ASICS, New Balance, Puma, Converse, Salomon and Timberland among others.
In recent years Yue Yuen has been shifting production to Indonesia and Vietnam where wages are lower.
All companies are, under Chinese law, supposed to pay full mandatory social insurance for workers - including pensions, medical insurance, housing allowances and injury compensation.
Recent legal reforms allowing migrant workers to transfer these payments when they relocate to other cities has led workers to pay closer attention to how companies fulfil these obligations.
A study by US-based China Labor Watch found that none of its survey group of 400 companies had paid the full amount of mandatory social insurance.
So the problems facing the Yue Yuen workers - corporate evasion of social security contributions - are endemic across the manufacturing industry.
"Some of my colleagues estimate that Yue Yuen owes the workers as much as one billion yuan over the years," a mid-level manager told China Labour Bulletin
The Yue Yuen strike began on 5 April, when hundreds of workers staged a protest action by blocking a nearby bridge.
The company promised to resolve the issues, but its later offer failed to meet workers' demands which led to a resumption of the strike on 14 April.
Thousands took part in a protest march behind a banner that proclaimed: "Pay back the social security and public housing fund! Shame on Yue Yuen's illegal activities!"
The government has drafted in around 2,000 police from cities including Guangzhou and Zhuhai. Around 20 strikers were arrested at this demo, according to eyewitnesses, who also said that some workers who held banners had been beaten.
Significantly, and replicating a pattern seen elsewhere, police repression seems to have hardened the resolve of the workers, with reports of strike numbers growing afterwards.
Despite the regime's increasing resort to repression and arrests, the rising tide of strikes shows not only the will to fight on the part of Chinese workers, but also a clear trend towards more sophisticated organisation and tactics.
Workers' expectations are also rising. Online posts by striking Yue Yuen workers criticise the role of the official company-controlled trade union and demand the right to elect their own union representatives.
This is an unstoppable process of workers struggling to build their own independent organisations in order to fight capitalist exploitation and the chains imposed upon the working masses by a dictatorial police state.
Workers and trade unionists around the world should give maximum support to these struggles in "the world's factory!"
In The Socialist 23 April 2014:
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Socialist Party workplace news