Fears Grow Over China Labour Unrest (FT 11/6/10)
Signs are emerging that the labour protests in China are far more widespread and co-ordinated than previously thought, prompting fears of copycat industrial action that could raise costs for multinational companies.
The unrest could pose risks for the Communist party, which wants to avoid the development of alternative centres of power.
Workers keep themselves up to date on strike action via mobile phones and QQ, an instant messaging tool.
They compare wages and working conditions, often with workers from their home province and use the results to bargain with employers, said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “[Labour protests] have been happening across the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta since the beginning of the year” due to labour shortages.
Those industrial actions had rarely been reported as they usually happened at smaller factories and were quickly resolved. Those companies also have good relationships with the local governments, which help them avoid bad press, according to one observer.
Labour disputes in China began to receive global attention recently after spreading to more factories operated by multinationals, especially Japanese and Taiwanese companies such as Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract electronics assembler, and Japan’s Honda.
Brother Industries, the Japanese printer maker, was the latest company to experience the spreading protests after workers at an industrial sewing machines plant that employs 900 people in Xian, in central Shannxi province, went on strike. Workers were off for several days, demanding better pay and conditions. They returned to work yesterday as talks continued.
In Suzhou, near Shanghai, industry sources report that several strikes have taken place this year over the scrapping of a plan to
allow workers to receive a refund on pension payments when they move province.
“One of the strikes happened when workers got together just by sending text messages to each other,” said Dong Baohua, law professor at East China University of Politics and Law. “Modern technology makes strikes more likely to happen,” he said.
Workers tended to strike before public holidays such as next week’s Dragon Boat Festival, said one Suzhou industrialist. “They know companies are trying hard to get the product out the door before the holiday”, and that gives them more bargaining power.
“We are very, very concerned about it,” said one Suzhou employer, who was worried that the success of strikes at Honda and Foxconn would embolden workers in the Yangtze River Delta region.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Soble in Tokyo