Shoe strikes escalate as protests surge

Tens of thousands of Chinese workers employed by a Taiwanese firm Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings have been on strike for almost two weeks in a dispute that has now become news around the world. The workers make shoes for Nike, Adidas and Timberland and the company claims to be the world’s largest footwear maker. Charlie Hore looks at the strikes in the context of a surge in workers’ protests in China in recent months.

photo via labornotes.org

photo via labornotes.org

For several decades now, Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings has failed to make the social insurance payments required by Chinese law. This means that the majority of the workforce have a huge bill to pay, as well as the company. It’s that debt that explains why the strikers have been holding out for so long.

They have already rejected one management offer that, while giving them a pay rise, would have left them still liable for the back payments. They are demanding that the company meet all of the missed payments, and a 30 percent pay rise. According to some reports they have also demanded direct negotiations with the company, not allowing the state-run ‘trade union’ to act on their behalf.

Riot police attacked workers massed outside the factory during the first week of the strike, and briefly arrested about 30 people. Since then workers have been clocking in and then going back to their company-owned dormitories with no public activity. Production remains at a standstill.

The US website China Labor Watch quoted one worker as saying: “The strike has continued. Management is being too forceful about workers returning to work, saying that beginning on the 24th, if workers swipe their cards and then leave, they will be punished according to absenteeism rules. Worker can only carry out a work stoppage sitting at their positions in the facilities in order to protest and demand a reasonable response from management to workers’ demands.”

This is the biggest strike in China for over a decade, and comes at a time of rising workers’ militancy. The immediate issue may be specific to the company, but the anger is much more widespread.

Migrant workers have been central to China’s economic boom for decades, but there is still a tendency to see them as ‘really’ peasants who will work in the cities in their teens and twenties, moving from job to job, before returning to their villages.

What the Yue Yuen strike clearly shows is that increasing numbers see themselves as permanent workers, and as a permanent workforce for the same company. Some of the strikers have worked for the company for over ten years, and in interviews some have talked about how the underpayments will affect their pensions. Many of them will be the children of migrant workers, who have seen how their parents were treated and have a sense of both their rights and their power.

This comes as the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) has reported a surge in workers protests following the Chinese new year. They note that there have been just over 200 strikes and other incidents in the first quarter of 2014, up by more than 30% from the same period a year ago. Some of that increase will be due to better reporting, but it also reflects the slowdown in the Chinese economy.

As factories start to lay off workers, and reduce or not pay wages, there seems to be an increased willingness to fight back. Most of the strikes monitored by CLB were defensive, over wage arrears or unemployment pay – significantly, there seem to be almost no strikes against closures as such – but some 10% were for wage increases.

In this context, the outcome of the Yue Yuen strike matters far beyond the ranks of the strikers themselves. If they win, they can serve as a very powerful example to much wider numbers of workers, showing just what collective action can win. Unions and other campaigning groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan have already taken solidarity actions, and there are actions planned in a number of western countries this week, including in London this evening.

Western companies producing in China are very conscious of their image, and embarrassing Adidas, Nike and Timberland can be a very useful way of putting pressure on the employer. For anyone who is in London today, there’s a solidarity picket at the Adidas store on Oxford Street at 5pm, 415-419 Oxford Street, London, W1C 2PG (opposite Selfridges), nearest tube Bond Street.

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