Hong Kong: Labour unrest that began among foreign firms in South China’s affluent Pearl Delta area is showing signs of spreading to poorer interior areas, broadening a movement by workers demanding wages to catch up with the nation’s growing wealth.
The burst of reported strikes is a worry for China’s ruling Communist Party, which has long discouraged independent worker action and punished protesting workers.
While Beijing has made vows of better incomes for workers and farmers a cornerstone of policy, local officials are often focused on attracting investors with cheap, trouble-free labour.
Following recent high-profile disputes at Honda Motor and iPhone maker Foxconn International, strikes were reported at a Taiwanese-owned sports goods supplier in Jiangxi province, and at Japanese sewing machine maker Brother Industries in Xian -- both some distance from China’s wealthier regions near Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“All it takes now is a single spark and news will spread all over China, which could lead to similar industrial action in other factories,” said Paul Tang, chief economist at Bank of East Asia in Hong Kong.
Most disputes centre on workers resentful of large income gaps, higher living costs and long hours with little rest, and employers trying to rein in rising costs as the labour pool shrinks.
The unrest also reflects the rise of a new generation of young Chinese who grew up in the country’s market-oriented era, with little memory of a tumultuous socialist past that included the government’s brutal crackdown that left hundreds dead during the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989.
If the labour unrest spreads, the government will face hard choices about either giving ground to increasingly assertive workers or protecting investors seen as key to the country’s exports.
In the latest incidents, about 900 workers demanding better pay and work conditions at two plants in the interior city of Xian brought production to a halt at a complex operated by Japan’s Brother.
The company said it restarted production on Thursday, but was still in talks on pay and conditions.
Elsewhere, 8,000 workers for Smartball Inc, a Taiwanese-owned supplier for Adidas, also went on strike, according to China Labor Watch, a labour advocacy group.
A representative of the Taiwan business association in Jiujiang, where Smartball is located, said production resumed at the factory on Thursday, after a dispute that began between workers and guards unrelated to wages.
Honda has been one of the hardest hit in the growing series of disputes, with a domino-style string of strikes at its China-based suppliers from workers demanding better pay and working conditions.
The company settled a dispute with workers at a transmission factory late last week in the city of Foshan in affluent Guangdong province, only to see workers at a nearby exhaust factory go on strike on Monday.
They were joined later in the week in a separate action by workers in a lock-making factory in the city of Zhongshan. The latter two disputes have yet to be resolved.
The work stoppages have rippled up the food chain, forcing Honda to halt some or all of its China car production for much of the last two weeks.
Workers at the plants have complained of long hours, including forced overtime, for pay that often totals 1,000-2,000 yuan ($146-$292) per month.
“For a long time workers’ wages and conditions have been held down, below what even government regulations mandate and also below the country’s general level of economic development,” said Duan Yi, a labour lawyer in Shenzhen who has advised workers in disputes.
“Migrant workers have also become more conscious of their power. Many of these companies operate with very thin supply chains, and if one factory stops the whole chain can seize up. ... I think the workers can see that, and are learning to use that to apply pressure,” he said.
Reports of the poor working conditions first began to surface last month when Chinese and later foreign media began detailing a string of suicides at a massive south China compound run by Foxconn, a unit of Taiwan electronics giant Hon Hai.
The company tried to resolve the issue with pay rises of up to 100%, even as some workers continued to complain of military-style working conditions that stressed strict discipline and discouraged socialising in the workplace.
On Wednesday, Taiwan media also reported that 2,000 workers at a Taiwanese-owned machinery firm in the city of Kunshan near Shanghai had gone on strike on Tuesday seeking better pay and working conditions.