Wave of strikes puts China’s communist leaders on spot over labor issues

By Elaine Kurtenbach, AP
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Strikes put China on spot over labor unrest

BEIJING — Workers demanding higher wages rallied outside a Honda plant in southern China on Friday, part of a rash of industrial action at Chinese factories highlighting growing restiveness among migrant workers.

Several hundred workers gathered at the front gates of parts supplier Honda Lock (Guangdong) Co. in the city of Zhongshan, where staff walked off the job on Wednesday.

A policeman reached by phone at the city’s Xiaolan precinct confirmed the action, but said he was unable to release details without permission.

“We’re keeping our eyes on this strike,” said the officer, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

An official from the Zhongshan branch of the Communist Party controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions said representatives had been sent to the scene to “handle it.” She also refused to give details or her name.

About 85 percent of plant’s 1,400 workers had joined the action to demand raises, said Hirotoshi Sato, a spokesman for Honda Lock based in the southwestern Japanese city of Miyazaki.

Sato said it was the first time there had been a strike at the plant, but he declined to give details of the workers’ demands. Operations were shut down while daily negotiations were ongoing, but it wasn’t clear when the action would end, he said.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said workers were seeking a boost in their monthly salaries from 1,700 yuan ($250) to 2,040 yuan ($300). An offer to raise monthly pay by 100 yuan ($15) had apparently been rejected, it said.

Friday’s rally came as Honda was resuming production at two other car assembly plants after resolving a three-day strike at parts supplier Foshan Fengfu Autoparts Co.

Honda said the Foshan factory employees agreed to a pay raise of 366 yuan ($53.60) per month for each full-time worker. That would increase pay for a new employee to 1,910 yuan ($280) per month.

Some workers held out for more and about 30 people brawled with ACFTU union officials on Monday.

Japan’s Brother Industries Ltd. also said it had ended a weeklong strike that had stalled production at its industrial sewing machine factory in the central city of Xi’an. Another strike, at a Taiwan-run rubber products plant west of Shanghai, also ended earlier this week after workers took to the streets demanding wage hikes.

Such incidents are an unsettling development for foreign manufacturers and a privileged communist leadership now far removed from its roots in labor movements a century ago.

Younger Chinese now seeking work in factories were raised in an era of relative plenty and have higher expectations and less tolerance for highly regimented factory living — underscored by a recent spate of worker suicides at the mammoth factory complex operated by iPhone maker Foxconn.

Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the Hong Kong based China Labor Bulletin, said workers had largely been willing to bide their time and accept their wages during the recent economic slowdown.

But since the economy began to boom again last year, they’ve found themselves working longer hours with no appreciable improvement in income, prompting some to take action, Crothall said.

“They see strikes have been successful elsewhere and decide to try their luck,” he said.

Crothall said the strikes also revealed deep disdain for official ACFTU union representatives, who are appointed by management and the Communist Party rather than elected by the workers themselves.

However, he questioned media reports saying the Honda Lock workers wanted to form their own independent union, saying it was more likely a desire simply to elect their own leaders who represented their own, and not management’s, interests.

Sato, the Honda Lock spokesman, said he had no word on any worker organizations outside the official union.

Fearing challenges to their hold on power, China’s communist leaders ban unauthorized labor organizations and public dissent. Those who violate those bans face harassment and prosecution.

But the authorities have long tolerated limited, local protests by workers unhappy over wages or other issues, perhaps recognizing the need for an outlet for such frustrations.

Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo and researchers Ji Chen in Shanghai, Xi Yue, Zhao Liang, and Bonnie Cao contributed to this report.

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