[Marxism] Plying Social Media, Chinese Workers Grow Bolder in Exerting Clout

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 3 13:59:07 MDT 2014


NY Times, May 3 2014
Plying Social Media, Chinese Workers Grow Bolder in Exerting Clout
By DAN LEVIN

DONGGUAN, China — The call to action, carried by social media to 
thousands of smartphones across this bleak factory town, roused the 
workers from their jobs making Nike and Adidas sneakers.

Their Taiwanese employer, Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings, the world’s 
largest manufacturer of branded athletic shoes, had for years underpaid 
the social security contributions that employees were counting on for 
retirement.

News of the shortfall, discovered and disseminated by a newly retired 
worker, stirred familiar resentments. But it was the company’s refusal 
to make amends that led to one of China’s largest strikes in recent 
memory, involving 40,000 workers who stayed off assembly lines for two 
weeks and cost Yue Yuen about $27 million in losses.

Last week, after government officials stepped in to resolve the impasse, 
the company announced it would make up the missing payments and start 
fully funding worker pensions as required by Chinese law.

Although played down by the state-run news media, the mass walkout 
illustrates the growing might of Chinese workers amid a shrinking labor 
pool, a slowing economy and the Communist Party’s fears of social 
unrest. The strike also highlights the increasing potency of social 
media despite the government’s best efforts to limit news and 
information that might inspire workers to stand up to employers who can 
fire troublemakers at will — or call on the police to jail labor organizers.

“Chinese workers now have greater bargaining power, and they know how to 
use this power,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at 
China Labor Bulletin, an advocacy group in Hong Kong.

The proletariat may be a vaunted pillar of Mao’s Communist revolution, 
but the workaday reality for China’s low-wage army of factory workers 
long ago eclipsed their hallowed status. On paper, Chinese workers are 
afforded generous rights and protections, but since the introduction of 
market reforms in the 1980s, factory owners, many of them multinational 
companies from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, have often set the terms of 
employment.

Independent trade unions are illegal in China, and government-backed 
unions are more interested in quickly defusing labor disputes than 
delivering on worker grievances. For years, a seemingly limitless supply 
of pliable young workers, many of them uneducated migrants from China’s 
rural hinterland, ensured that the factory owners could dictate wages 
and work hours.

But that power dynamic has begun to shift, fueled in part by increasing 
opportunities in the country’s expanding service sector and a shrinking 
work force. The mounting labor shortage has strengthened the hand of 
Chinese workers, who increasingly demand better work conditions, higher 
pay and perks like days off.

Last year, China’s 269 million migrant workers earned an average of $410 
a month, an increase of nearly 14 percent from 2012 and almost twice the 
growth rate in the nation’s gross domestic product.

These gains do not come easily. In recent years, workers across the 
country have been turning their aspirations into action, staging more 
than 1,100 strikes and protests between June 2011 and the end of 2013, 
according to China Labor Bulletin. In a sign that labor unrest is 
rising, there have been more than 200 strikes, including 85 in the 
manufacturing sector, in the past two months alone, the group said.

Technology is aiding that trend. Better educated than their parents and 
as nimble on a computer as they are on an assembly line, blue-collar 
workers have become well versed in labor law, less tolerant of onerous 
schedules and more willing to share complaints beyond their immediate 
circle of co-workers.

Perhaps most worrisome to Chinese authorities, during the Yue Yuen 
strike, workers and administrative staff joined together largely without 
the help of protest leaders, who can be easily neutralized by the 
police. Employees turned to social media and spread messages faster than 
censors could stop them. Their most effective weapon was the popular 
mobile messaging program Weixin, which has nearly 300 million users in 
China and is also known by its English name, WeChat.

“Before, we were naïve and always getting tricked,” said Xiao Zhixiong, 
30, a migrant from China’s central Hunan Province who makes sneaker 
molds. “Now, we’re learning to be smart.”

Sprawled along a fetid river that winds through Gaobu township, the No. 
3 Yue Yuen complex includes factories, dormitories and a basketball 
court. Just beyond the gates, fruit vendors and noodle restaurants 
compete for workers’ hard-earned cash, as does a sleek Footzone shoe 
store owned by the company. Above its doors, a purple billboard 
advertising Nike Air Max sneakers is emblazoned with the word “defy” — 
an exhortation that might sound empowering to Western consumers, but is 
downright subversive in China.

On April 14, defy is what tens of thousands of workers did. A month 
earlier, Yue Yuen employees discovered that the company was calculating 
pension contributions on their base wages, rather than total incomes 
that included lucrative overtime. Despite sporadic street protests and 
entreaties to the government-backed union, the company repeatedly 
rejected their demands for the unpaid benefits, as well as a pay raise 
and an improved contract, workers said.

“The factory director told us, ‘If you’re looking for us to repay, I can 
tell you it’s not going to happen,’ ” said Liu Hai, 52, an assembly line 
worker who attended a morning meeting of management and a group of 
employees. “That afternoon, people just started walking off little by 
little.”

Fueled by social media, the trickle became a flood. Huge crowds gathered 
outside the factory gates, while others just sat idly at their 
workstations. Mr. Liu, who earns a monthly base wage of $210 after 20 
years with the company, was careful not to protest outside, where 
thousands of police officers stood guard.

Though the police interrogated Mr. Liu for his online comments, forcing 
him to sign a document promising not to cause trouble, he remained 
defiant. “We’re fighting for our rights,” he said recently over a plate 
of stir-fried pig intestines. “Even if I go to prison I won’t regret it.”

While Yue Yuen agreed to reimburse pension contributions and increase a 
monthly living subsidy by $37, the outcome is something of a Pyrrhic 
victory for its workers. In order to claim the past benefits, employees 
must pay matching funds, which for many amounts to years of savings they 
do not have.

“Worker wages are barely enough to feed their families now,” said Wang 
Kongxia, 38, who has worked at Yue Yuen for 19 years. “A lot of people 
feel quite helpless.”

Despite those misgivings, workers say, Chinese authorities and Yue Yuen 
used subterfuge to force employees back to the assembly lines. According 
to Ms. Wang, factory management removed the time clocks for four days 
this week, requiring employees to sign in every two hours or be fired. 
Supervisors were also asked to photograph each employee. “We didn’t do 
it,” she said.

Yue Yuen did not respond to repeated phone calls requesting comment.

Zhen Fanfei, 35, has gone back to making Adidas midsoles, but he doubts 
the company will be more respectful of workers’ demands without a major 
change in the government’s attitude.

“Capitalists will always be capitalists,” he said.




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