Featured image: worker strikes and protests increase in China: 741 actions took place in 6 months.
We publish this unofficial translation of an article from Yeni Demokrasi found here.
China Workers’ Bulletin (CWB) announced that there were 741 workers’ strikes and protests in the first half of 2023. In 2022, there were a total of 830 strikes and demonstrations per year.
According to the CWB’s “strike map”, from a sectoral perspective, the number of strikes and protests, which was 10 in January, rose to 59 in May, with the largest increase seen in the manufacturing sector. In the construction industry, workers consistently protested due to wage delays, with around 50 demonstrations per month. In the service sector and transport sector, approximately 10 and 5 actions per month were recorded, respectively. It was pointed out that although the workers in the education sector and the mining sector do not take action frequently, this rate has increased slightly since May.
MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY: FACTORIES ARE RELOCATING
In May, the CWB recorded a sharp rise in worker protests triggered by a wave of factory closures and relocations, particularly in coastal areas. Due to this trend leading workers to demand their rights, the CWB urged authorities and the official union to proactively seek ways to represent workers’ interests in negotiations, not only at the local level but also in the supply chain.
China’s overall export value has been declining since June 2022, except for a brief recovery. The economic recession in Europe and the USA caused overseas orders to fall. Trade disputes also contributed to instability in the manufacturing sector.
The electronics industry and the ready-to-wear and apparel industry were the most affected sectors. These industries are concentrated in Guangdong province. In the first half of this year, 66 protests by electronics factory workers were recorded. Ready-to-wear and apparel workers, on the other hand, took 38 actions. These two sub-industries accounted for more than half of all manufacturing sector protests recorded in the first half of the year. The remaining events are metallic products (18), petrochemical products (14), automotive (12), machinery (9) and toys (6), etc. occurred in the sectors.
The most common worker demands in the manufacturing industry are related to the relocation and closure of factories. In the electronics industry, workers not only protested over wage delays and economic concerns, such as the lack of compensation due to the factory relocation and closure, but also expressed dissatisfaction with company management’s decisions and the terms of their contracts. These demands were largely driven by practices where the factory transferred workers to other positions, asked them to sign new contracts, or carried out concealed forced resignations—rather than terminating workers’ contracts and paying compensation.
An example is the case of Foxconn workers, who protested in Zhoukou, Henan province, in May 2023. On the other hand, the current scale of strikes by workers in the electronics sector is relatively small when compared to the workers’ response to the 2013-2015 wave of factory relocations. The CWB strike map found that about 40 percent of protests in the electronics industry involved 101 to 1,000 workers, with the majority involving fewer than 100 people. Unsatisfied with unpaid wages and the closure and relocation of factories, workers often gather in open areas of the factory site or in administrative offices to protest. In some cases, workers blocked factory entrances.
In the textile and apparel industry, the frequency of protests was less than in the electronics industry. The scale of the protests was also smaller. Most of the events were sit-ins with less than 100 workers. Of the 38 actions, 31 were related to unpaid wages.
CONSTRUCTION: WORKERS WERE NOT PAID
China’s construction industry held the lead in worker protests recorded on the CWB strike map. In the first half of this year, more than 50 actions were recorded each month in the sector. While China’s real estate market contracted, there were problems with payments to contractors. This was reflected as unpaid wages to workers. Housing construction protests (111 protests) accounted for one-third of the total protests recorded so far this year, followed by shopping malls (79 protests) and infrastructure projects (22 protests).
Geographically, construction workers’ protests occurred the most in Guangdong province (83 protests), followed by Shaanxi (39), Henan (22), Zhejiang (19), Shandong (18) and Sichuan (16). Many of these states have experienced massive population growth over the past decade and are now facing an oversupply of property.
SERVICE INDUSTRY: LAYOUTS AND UNPAID FEES
Protests by service industry workers ranked third, with an average of 17 protests per month in the first half of 2023. The most common demand was payment of workers’ wages. Actions concentrated on sanitation (22 actions), retail and wholesale (21 actions), and hotels-food and beverage (15 actions).
The traditional retail industry is facing competition from e-commerce platforms, and the impact of the pandemic over the past two years has led to the closure of brick-and-mortar hypermarkets and many supermarket outlets, which has been cited as a reason for non-payment of workers.
Carrefour continues to close some of its individual stores and issue wage debts to its employees since January. Mandatory layoffs and delays in payment of severance pay are reported at Carrefour stores across China.
Another problematic retailer is the Better Life commercial chain store. In May, Better Life supermarkets in several cities in Hunan province announced that they were closing one after another. “Better Life, which was prosperous in the past, can’t even pay basic wages now,” the workers said. Some of the workers, who gathered in front of one of the closed stores and protested, threatened to jump from the roof and demanded that the company pay social security and overdue wages.
The cleaning industry employs a large number of older workers, including migrant/refugee workers, and there is a high rate of wage lag. Cleaning companies often state that they do not receive funding from contracting parties, which in most cases is the government. For this reason, companies do not pay wages and reflect the problem to the workers.
TRANSPORTATION AND LOGISTICS
The protests of taxi drivers left their mark on the collective actions of those working in the transport sector. A total of 26 such protests were registered in the first half of this year. Taxis are affected by competition from unlicensed taxis and online ride-hailing platforms. Taxi drivers are also protesting the spread of shared electric bikes.
As for other transport and logistics industry protests, the CWB strike map recorded three strikes by couriers in March and April, including Meituan food delivery drivers in Shanwei city, Guangdong province. In this case, continuous and heavy rains affected the area, but Meituan canceled drivers’ inclement weather subsidies and lowered unit prices. When workers went on strike, the company called in drivers from other regions instead of bowing to the demands of local drivers. Finally, after the incident gained attention online, Meituan restored the unit price and partially refunded driver subsidies.
Drivers of Huolala (Lalamove), an online shipping platform, launched several strikes in May. Huolala drivers in Chengdu, Chongqing and Liaocheng in Shandong province were dissatisfied with Huolala’s four consecutive cuts in freight prices and the cumulative reduction in drivers’ incomes from other policies. These policies were designed to lure customers onto the platform, but drivers said they were the ones who paid the price. Huolala also reduced drivers’ revenue by increasing membership fees and platform commissions. Official reactions from the union and the authorities were not enough to protect workers’ rights.
China Workers’ Bulletin (CWB) also pointed out that some levels of the All China Trade Union Federation (ACTUF), the official trade union of China, have taken the initiative to get involved in some collective action. However, it was noted that the effect of the intervention of the unions was quite limited and the processes were still deeply hindered by the bureaucracy.
In some cases, it was even emphasized that the actions of the unions directly conflicted with the interests of the workers. For example, during the Welfare Electronics Factory relocation protest in Shenzhen in April 2023, the official union was willing to negotiate with the factory on behalf of the workers; however, when the official union sought support and coordination from the street-level union, it flatly refused. The bulletin featured a number of similar examples.
POLICE ATTACKS AND DETENTIONS
On the other hand, it was emphasized that there was a significant increase in the number of actions in which the police were dispatched against workers’ strikes and protests. In the first half of this year, the CWB’s “strike map” recorded 82 police dispatches; this is almost double the number of 49 events last year. In seven of these actions, workers were detained for protesting wages and other compensation.