China's workers have driven record numbers of strikes across the country.
From 2011 to 2013, China Labor Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong-based workers' rights group, recorded around 1,200 strikes and protests across the country. In 2014 alone, there were more than 1,300 incidents. The following year, that number rose to over 2,700 — more than one a day in Guangdong province — a pattern that has continued into 2016. No province of China is unaffected by strikes or worker protests, a far sight from the image of technocratic control and permanent growth that the ruling Communist Party likes to present to the world. Thanks to concerted censorship of both traditional and social media, many protesting workers "often don't understand they aren't the only ones," says Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They don't recognize that these are systematic failures not local grievances." Because of this, protests and strikes "do not generate a kind of solidarity and political understanding within the greater population or facilitate a greater political consciousness." "The absolute bottom line is making sure their workers are not coordinating." Eli Friedman, author of "Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China."says. While unrest in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong gains the most attention overseas, "in terms of actual number of disputes, labor is almost certainly the biggest source of conflict," Freidman adds. "The authorities are concerned that this could cohere into a political force." Beijing is worried that any kind of greater political consciousness among workers "would lead to a bigger movement" that could threaten their hold on power, Wang says.
Analysts say such worker activism happens in spite of, not thanks to, Chinese trade unions, all of which fall under the official control of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (AFCTU), the world's largest labor organization. Established in 1925 under the auspices of the nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the AFCTU quickly grew to represent millions of workers across the country. The union's control of the Chinese labor movement is total, any attempt by workers to organize or negotiate outside of the official structure is seen as an attack on state power. "It was never designed to function as a real trade union," says Geoff Crothall, CLB communications director. Except in rare circumstances, workers do not freely elect their own union representatives and corruption and abuse of power are endemic problems. "Most of the so-called union officials know nothing about labor organizing or what it's like to work on a factory production line or construction site," Crothall says. "They have a huge vested interest in maintaining their position."
With ever increasing numbers of strikes and protests, "it's been easy for local governments to blame NGOs for worker activism," even though the number of these groups is relatively small, says Manfred Elfstrom, a Cornell-based researcher who studies the Chinese labor movement. Independent labor groups have been particularly hard hit in President Xi Jinping's crackdown on NGOS. According to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), in December 18 labor rights activists were detained in Guangdong province alone, with almost two dozen more interrogated, "contributing to an overall climate of fear. Many NGOs have found it almost impossible to carry out their work, with at least one Guangdong group reduced to keeping all its materials in packing boxes ready for the next time it is forced to flee its premises.
While some strikes — generally those involving foreign companies, such as a September 2014 walkout involving more than 10,000 workers at an Apple supplier in Dongguan — are widely reported, most go largely unreported outside their immediate areas, with information only seeping out later via human rights monitors and activist groups. Frustration over wage disputes and labor issues has led to violence.
"The fundamental cause has been the systematic failure of employers to respect the basic rights of employees, such as being paid on time and receiving their legally mandated benefits, and the failure of local government officials to enforce labor law," according to CLB.
A 2010 strike at the Nanhai Honda car plant in southern China was a turning point for the country's labor movement -- showing for the first time that a young migrant workforce could stand up and successfully fight for their rights, according to Eli Friedman. The production line was brought to a halt by 23-year-old Tan Guocheng, who shouted: "Don't work for such low wages! Don't work for such low wages!" as he hit the emergency stop button.
While the economic slowdown saw 2015 become a banner year for worker protests, it may seem just a blip compared to what is to come, as Beijing prepares to cut millions of jobs across multiple state-owned industries. With protests already at record rates according to CLB, Beijing is preparing for a mass-downsizing of China's bloated state-owned industries, beginning with the laying off of more than 1.8 million steel and coal workers. In Benxi, in the industrial heartland of Liaoning province, workers are feeling the squeeze already. The state-owned Benxi Iron and Steel company has cut wages dramatically and many employees have been laid off as the company faces slumping demand and a global steel glut. One worker, who declined to give his name, said he'd been made redundant and then rehired as a day worker, meaning he no longer gets company health insurance or benefits.
Signs of such resistance were on view in March, as coal workers in Heilongjiang province took to the streets to protest plans by state-run Longmay Mining Group to lay off more than 100,000 employees. The protests forced an embarrassing reversal by governor Lu Hao, who had previously held Longmay up as an example of how Xi Jinping's push for restructuring of the state sector could be carried out. Following the protests, Lu issued a statement vowing to "financially support" the firm to ensure that workers received unpaid wages, blaming managers at the company for withholding information. "I had known that above ground workers had wages in arrears, but it's also true that workers down shafts are also in arrears, and I spoke wrongly about that," Lu told state media, which did not mention the protests.
The cost of mass layoffs may be what led some government officials to voice criticism of existing labor laws. Just like any employer in the West, government ministers blame the workers. During the annual National People's Congress in March Finance Minister Lou Jiwei, a longtime critic of the Labor Contract Law, said current policy is "unbalanced" and overprotective of workers. "An employee may not work hard and the law makes it difficult for the employer to deal with by, for example, firing him or her," he said, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. In February, Yin Weimin, Minister of Human Resources and Social Security, said the law had created a "lack of flexibility in the labor market and high labor costs for employers."
While it may have been able to buy off disgruntled newly-unemployed workers in the 2000s with resettlement packages and the promise of jobs in the booming private sector, Beijing may be facing far greater instability this time around and much more resistance.