Category Archives: labor dispute

Foxconn Riots: A Big Deal?

I’ll admit, I mostly shrugged off the news about riots at a Foxconn plant in Taiyuan a few days ago. Foxconn is already famous for a series of worker suicides, and that the riot took place at an iPhone 5 factory shouldn’t be too surprising either- don’t we all already know that Apple doesn’t really think very differently than any other huge company when it comes to the conditions in which its products are made? Evan Osnos writes about what we should take away from this incident:

Though most of the iPhone assembly is done elsewhere, workers said that the iPhone was being made there, too, so the story leapt onto front pages. Anything attached to Apple gets more than its share of attention, but in this case, the Apple factor is far less interesting than what this instance of labor unrest suggests about the months ahead for China.

The riot at Foxconn—or any of the other five hundred “mass incidents” that China records on an average day—has implications far beyond Apple. Labor activists say that they are happening more often this year than last. A little over a week ago, six thousand workers at a Flextronics Technology factory in Shanghai went on strike for severance pay. In June, it was a hundred workers in a mini-uproar at another Foxconn plant. They are no longer simply calling for better wages. “Many of the protests this year appear to be related to the country’s economic slowdown, as employees demand the payment of overdue wages from financially struggling companies, or insist on compensation when money-losing factories in coastal provinces are closed and moved to lower-cost cities in the interior,” as the Times put it.

But the deeper problem is about institutions. Day by day, Chinese workers expect better conditions and greater guarantees that when companies go bust, the employees will not. And, yet, China permits no independent trade unions or free collective bargaining. Complaint and mediation procedures are weak. China today still has, more or less, the same Party-sponsored national trade union it has had for sixty years, even as the economy and the population have transformed. If Beijing is to avoid more riots in the months and years ahead, it needs to stop seeing this as an Apple problem and start seeing it as a China problem.

I’d agree with him that this is a good case to use to an example of the problems facing Chinese workers and labor, but still, as far as I can tell it’s only the Apple connection that made this incident stand out. Otherwise, ‘conditions are bad; workers strike/riot’ is about as Chinese a story as you can get.

More details from China Labor Bulletin:

Photographs and video uploaded to the Internet showed upturned police cars, fences demolished, bikes set on fire and dormitory windows smashed, and many reports claimed that shops inside the complex were broken into. Several thousand armed police were called in to restore order and Foxconn said that some 40 individuals were taken to hospital for treatment.

Although the official version of events from Foxconn attributed the violence to a dispute between workers from different provinces, many workers present at the time were certain the violence erupted after a security guard abused a female employee.

Workers’ sentiment on China’s online forums was divided, some angry, some joyful. Workers were eager to post photos and make comments on the events. And some workers from other Foxconn plants in Henan, Shandong, and Shenzhen posted letters praising the Taiyuan workers for their courage to start a riot.

Amid the general exuberance, there were a few voices calling on workers to stay calm and be rational. A worker, who said he had been employed at Taiyuan Foxconn for three years, highlighted the failure of the Foxconn trade unions to properly represent workers’ interests. This he said had complicated the longstanding conflict between management and workers. He hoped workers could handle the conflict in a rational manner in order to avoid unnecessary casualties.

This post was immediately challenged by another worker, who responded that workers had not meant to instigate a riot but that they had no other way to address injustice. When they called a hotline to complain about the abusive security guards, for example, they were told their complaint could not be handled.

Although several workers posted demands to set up their own more representative trade union, they are unlikely to gain support from local official unions like the workers from Ohms Electronics did in Shenzhen. Foxconn is a major investor in many inland provinces and government officials are eager to please the world’s largest electronics maker by helping it recruit workers. In addition, one of the reasons Foxconn moved its manufacturing bases to China in the first place was to dodge strong unions in Taiwan.

If this reminds us that labor in China is a major source of instability, and that a slowing economy is exacerbating these issues, that’s fine. Otherwise, I don’t see why this is getting disproportionately larger media coverage than any of the comparable incidents that take place on a very regular basis.

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“Keeping Beijing’s taxis on the streets”

Taxi strikes are one of the most visible forms of strikes in China, and there have been a bunch of them in recent years taking place in major Chinese cities. FT reports on how a taxi strike in Beijing was brought to a rapid resolution by national authorities:

The taxi drivers’ litany of complaints is long: petrol prices in China are at record highs, eroding profits. Drivers usually work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, and often commute an hour or two each way to pick up their cab. Meanwhile taxi fares have barely changed to keep pace with China’s steady inflation.

This weekend, Beijing’s taxi drivers decided they had had enough. On Sunday afternoon, several taxi drivers told the FT they had received text messages about a strike on Monday and Tuesday and were considering participating.

However on Monday morning Beijing’s streets were full of taxis, and Tuesday was business as usual too. So what happened?

Prominently displayed in the paper was an article about a high-level government meeting in which three government departments met to discuss taxi drivers’ employment and benefits.

According to the article, the officials promised sweeping reforms to China’s taxi system nationwide starting in March, including giving drivers at least one day off a week, making sure drivers got social benefits like pensions, and ensuring that taxi drivers’ payments to their taxi companies are not unreasonable. Nowhere did the article mention the word “strike,” but the implications were clear enough.

A surprisingly reasonable conclusion to the whole saga, although I guess a taxi strike during the upcoming Chinese congress would be pretty embarrassing.

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“Indignant workers threaten suicide at Foxconn park in Wuhan”

First, the story itself, as reported by WantChinaTimes:

According to the anti-Chinese government website China Jasmine Revolution, about 300 employees at Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, threatened to kill themselves by jumping from the top of a building in the park.

On Jan. 2, about 300 employees at the plant belonging to Taiwan-based Foxconn — the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer — asked their employer for a raise. They were told in response to either quit their positions and receive compensation or keep their jobs and receive no additional payment. Most of the employees took the first option but the company terminated the agreement and none of them were given the money they were promised.

As the situation developed, the mayor of Wuhan came to dissuade the former employees from committing suicide. At 9:00pm on Jan. 3, the group chose life.

14 workers at Foxconn plants in other parts of China committed suicide in 2010, with employees frequently complaining of discrimination and long working hours.

Next, some thoughts from Malcolm Moore:

First, a lot of journalists have followed Want China Times’ lead and written that 300 workers were protesting, and that they worked on a Microsoft XBox 360 production line.

We checked both of those things yesterday and couldn’t confirm either. Foxconn said 150 workers had striked. Which matches up with the photographs taken on the roof of the factory – there clearly aren’t 300 people there.

As for the Microsoft line – the worker we managed to get hold of said the new production line that had triggered the protest was making computer cases for Acer. Not Microsoft. But Microsoft were jumpy enough about it all to issue a boilerplate statement saying they were investigating the matter.

So, what conclusions can we draw? Mainly that migrant workers are ever more aware of their rights, and are less and less afraid to hold their employers to ransom if they do not get what they see as reasonable treatment.

The second conclusion is that even though this was not a story about Apple, Foxconn and Apple have become closely linked in the minds of readers. Several commenters at the bottom of my report on the protest called for Apple to stop using Foxconn (I’ve explained previously why this is a very unlikely outcome).

In addition, what happened at Foxconn in 2010, with scores of young people throwing themselves off roofs, mostly in the same campus, was clearly a cluster. And while to some extent it was caused by the feelings of alienation and depression suffered by the workers, it was also caused by Foxconn’s own handling of the incident. As I have written before, Foxconn incentivised its workers to commit suicide by offering huge compensation payments to their families. Those offers were quickly rescinded when it became clear they had provoked workers to weigh up the value of their lives.

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“China labour unrest flares as orders fall”

FT reports on this trend, which is a key part of the argument claiming that a severe dip in the Chinese economy could easily topple the government:

China is facing its worst wave of labour unrest since a series of wildcat strikes at Japanese-owned car plants last year, as declining export orders force factories to reduce worker pay.

More than 10,000 workers in Shenzhen and Dongguan, two leading export centres in southern Guangdong province, have gone on strike over the past week. The latest protests broke out on Tuesday at a Taiwanese computer factory in Shenzhen.

Last week, Guangdong’s acting governor said the province’s exports dropped 9 per cent in October from the previous month. Provincial leaders are also contending with widespread protests by farmers over land seizures. On Monday nearly 5,000 residents in the town of Wukan marched on government offices in a peaceful protest.

Factories are cutting the overtime that workers depend on to supplement their modest base salaries, after a drop in overseas orders.

According to CLB, the average basic wage for electronic workers is about Rmb1,500 ($236) a month, but rises to Rmb2,500 with overtime. “Their basic wage is never enough on its own without overtime,” Mr Crothall said.

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“7,000 workers in Dongguan stage mass protest”

Guangzhou has been relatively quiet for the last few months, but today it saw a pretty big protest:

Around 7,000 workers at a Taiwan-owned shoe factory in Dongguan took to the streets today, 17 November, in protest at salary cuts and the earlier dismissal of 18 managerial staff, according to posts on Tianya and a Southern Daily reporter’s microblog.

Photographs posted online showed large numbers of police on the street and bloodied workers who claimed to have been beaten by the police. Several other workers had reportedly been detained.

The strike at the Yue Cheng factory in Huang Jiang township was triggered by the dismissal of 18 managers in late October. The company claimed they had been dismissed because of the factory’s decreasing orders and sluggish business. But one of the managers told China Business News that the real reason behind their dismissal was that the factory planned to shift production to Jiangxi in a bid to combat rising costs in the Pearl River Delta.

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“China rural migrants young, restless and online”

Reuters has a piece up summarizing the release of new information on migrant workers by the China Labour Bulletin:

China’s young migrant workers believe manufacturers can afford bigger pay rises and they are increasingly willing to strike to win them, according to a report that documents the spread of labor unrest across the country’s export zones.

The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which advocates stronger rights for workers, also said in the report on Tuesday the tens of millions of young migrants from the Chinese countryside are increasingly adept at using the Internet to mobilize.

“Workers now understand that many enterprises are profitable enough to accommodate wage increases, and the workers are now more determined and able to push for those increases,” the non-governmental organization said.

“Whereas in the past, workers tended to wait for their rights to be violated before taking action, they are now becoming more proactive.”

More than 100 million rural Chinese people will settle in towns and cities in the next decade, many of them young migrants who lack old-age and medical insurance in the places they want to call home, China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission said in a report.

“I don’t have a definite direction. I work in this factory today and the other tomorrow,” Wang Long, a 24-year-old migrant worker in Beijing told Reuters TV. “What can I do if I get old? It will be very bad if I cannot have a formal and stable job when I’m in my thirties. How could I raise my family then?”

Although migrant workers have often won pay rises in recent years, they feel poorly served by China’s official, Communist Party-run trade union, which has often sided with management in factory disputes, the China Labour Bulletin said in the report.

Instead, strikes and labor protests have spread through informal channels, with workers often using mobile phones and Internet message sites to coordinate, it added.

“They are giving each other in real time updates of their protests, and this has allowed workers’ rights groups, lawyers interested in workers’ rights, to offer advice, help them push their demands,” said Crothall, the Labour Bulletin spokesman, speaking of these digital tools.

The China Labour Bulletin report estimates that in 2009 China experienced about 30,000 collective labor protests, and adds there is “certainly no reason to suspect that the number of strikes is decreasing.”

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“China’s summer of discontent”

After going over the other sources of discontent this summer, Democracy Digest talks about the taxi drivers strike, which I haven’t carried on here yet:

The Communist party’s ability to contain simmering social unrest is also being tested in Hangzhou, where a taxi drivers’ strike has prompted “the kind of violence seldom seen in China, outside the ethnically tense regions of Tibet or Xinjang.”

The strikers reportedly returned to work today, official sources claimed, after the authorities agreed to adjust fares. But the dispute raises serious questions about the sustainability of a closed political system which provides no institutional outlet for the articulation and resolution of citizens’ grievances.

“Taxi drivers can’t participate in the drafting of polices relating to them, and can’t protect their rights through the courts or labour unions, which means they have no choice but to go on strike,” says Guo Yushan, a researcher at the Transition Institute, a privately-funded think tank. “China has had 60 taxi strikes since 2004. If the system doesn’t change, the strikes will continue in different cities.”

Some China watchers had predicted a “hot summer” of social unrest fueled by discontent over rising inflation. The taxi drivers’ strike is the latest in a series of disputes that are worrying the ruling Communist authorities who are especially wary of workers taking industrial action independently of the officially-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions.

“We have seen these kinds of disturbance on a regular basis in China for several years now. I think you can possibly say there has been a bit of an upsurge,” according to Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “There is a lot of pent up anger and frustration among ordinary people – not just migrant workers,” he said.

Like with workers in Guangdong finding solidarity an effective tool, groups across China are learning to stick together. How the government reacts to these pushes will be an incredibly important part of determining what happens next.

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“Migrant worker is hamstrung for demanding due wages; massive violent conflict ensues”

Ministry of Tofu has a writeup and pictures from a riot in Chaozhou, Guangdong province.  It’s important to remember that by the numbers, the greatest share of protests and riots belongs not to any of the ethnic minorities, but to laborers and migrant workers.  Soaring wealth inequality has left many of them standing still at a time when they can see other Chinese sprinting forward, and their calls for a bigger slice of the pie typically fall on deaf ears.  On this latest incident:

It was started by a hideous act of violence on a migrant worker. On June 1, 18-year-old worker Xiong Hanjiang from Sichuan province went with his parents to Huayi Porcelain Factory in the town Guxiang, Chaozhou city in southern Guangzhou province and asked the employer for his past due wages. During the process, Xiong Hanjiang got into a fight with Su, the factory owner. Su hit Xiong’s head with a wooden stool and ordered his underlings to cut Xiong’s wrists and ankles and cripple him.

Three suspects, including Su, were arrested by the police on the 5th. However, according to a microblog post, instead of penalizing or incriminating them, police released some of them after receiving US$460 as hush money. Indignant, Xiong’s family called on 200 of their fellow provincials who also worked in the town of Guxiang to gather at the town hall. The local government officials did not respond to the anger of the migrant workers. As a result, the 200 migrant workers vented their furor on the cars and small businesses nearby. Three cars were wrecked, one was set on fire and burnt. Nine of the mob were taken away by the police.

According to Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, until yesterday, migrant workers wandered on the streets of Guxiang, burning stores, smashing cars and hitting innocent people. Martial law has been imposed on the entire town until 14th. Schools have been closed, industrial production halted. Ordinary people mostly stayed home. The few men who did go out were armed with batons. Guxiang became a ghost town. Rumor even has it that migrant workers and provincials would detonate gas stations.

These labor disputes are yet another problem that could be solved by providing Chinese citizens with a way to settle disputes according to the law.  Incidents like this will continue until such avenues are made available to them.  Oh, and providing Chinese citizens with legal protection against violence would make it less likely that factory owners would see “cripple discontent workers” as a viable solution.

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