“Ten years ago, we didn’t have any conception of the law or defending our rights,” said a worker involved in strike action against their Lide shoe factory bosses. In the face of rising inequality, China’s government, over the last decade, passed landmark laws establishing employee rights, including social insurance payments from employers, and compensation when factories relocate. But the Lide shoemakers had no doubts where the authorities stood. “The government here just pressures us workers. It speaks on behalf of the bosses,” said one worker of more than a decade. After a six-day stoppage, employees went back to work, saying they had won sufficient concessions. “We basically got what we wanted,” said one female worker. “But our pay is still low. How can we be satisfied?”
Low-cost labour has been key to China’s decades-long economic boom, and a newly found worker activism has authorities worried. There were 1,379 protests by workers in China last year, more than tripling in just three years, according to data from the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB). Employees have been empowered by a labour shortage and recent laws giving them greater rights. “They are not only aware of their rights, but understand that they are part of the working class, a class that increasingly has the strength and ability to forge its own destiny,” CLB said.
Finance Minister Lou Jiwei last month warned that China risks falling into a “middle income trap” if high wages make manufacturing less profitable before the country can shift to less labour-intensive, more value-added industries. He called legislation promoting bargaining between workers and employees “scary”, and blamed excessive “union power” for the multiple bankruptcies in the United States auto industry. The ‘Communist’ Party fears an independent labour movement, and only allows one government-linked trade union federation, which claimed 290 million members at the end of 2013, which tends to side with employers. Authorities face a dilemma between raising living standards for ordinary people, a key part of their claim to a right to rule, and ensuring healthy profits for local industries — often with close official connections. At the same time, they consider social unrest anathema and want to see economic growth, but China is facing increasing labour cost competition from elsewhere in Asia.
When activist Wu Guijun arrived in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen 13 years ago, strikes were almost unheard of, despite his meagre monthly wages of just a few hundred yuan. “Workers struggled individually, and rarely spoke of defending their rights,” he said. Workers have been emboldened, Wu said. “As their living standards improved, they have started to pursue the respect and status they deserve from society.” Wu turned to activism after leading his co-workers in protest when his furniture factory faced sudden closure in 2013. Despite striking or organising walkouts not being illegal, Wu was detained by police for more than a year until prosecutors dropped charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”. Given a compensation payout of more than 70,000 Yuan for unwarranted detention, he founded his own labour rights organisation, the 100 Million New Labourers Centre. In a borrowed office stocked with pamphlets on Chinese labour laws, Wu advises young workers on strike tactics and how to use social media, despite the constant threat of police harassment and detentions.