Crisis Hits Chinese Workers

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in China's formerly booming coastal cities are heading home amid factory closures and labor disputes sparked by the global downturn.
2008-11-04
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SHENZHEN, China: Worker is detained during a sit-in protest outside a government building, 30 October 2008.
Photo: Volunteer
HONG KONGMillions of workers who flooded to China's booming coastal cities to find work during the past decade are now beginning to return home amid a wave of factory closures and unemployment sparked by the global financial crisis.

In a phenomenon more usual around the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, trains and long-distance bus networks are packed full of people heading west and inland, making tickets hard to come by as people head home to cut losses and be reunited with their families.

"A lot of people are workers returning to their family homes," one passenger on a packed train in southwestern China's Yunnan province said.

Factory closures and rising unemployment in the Pearl River Delta and eastern coastal regions are also sparking labor unrest, as workers stage demonstrations to demand their back pay and severance benefits from factories now in administration.

We detained a few people who were making trouble."
Bao'an police officer
Police in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen detained eight former workers for the now bankrupt Hong Kong-invested watchmaker Yijinli following days of sit-ins and clashes with hundreds of workers who had not yet been paid by the administrators.

"There were about six or seven security personnel detaining one person," a former Yijinli worker surnamed Ou said of clashes that began Friday in the city's Bao'an district.

Workers demand back pay

"They pressed him to the floor and beat him really badly. Then they told us to get in the police vehicles, that there would be a free bus back to the factory. They still hadn't given us a response [to our demands]."

He said the workers had refused to move until their demands were met.

"Soon after that, more than 100 riot police came rushing in and started to drag us away. If anyone refused to get on the bus they would beat them. They said that the workers who had led the protest were disturbing public order. They detained seven people," Ou said.

A relative of one of the detainees, surnamed Yang, said the detention of his relative brought the total to eight.

"On Friday evening they detained one other worker. His name was Yang Daicheng. He had been speaking out quite fiercely around the factory," Yang said.

"That day they detained seven people. Now the total is eight. Four other people were taken in for questioning and held overnight."

Bao'an factories closed

He said most of the workers had left Shenzhen after collecting their back pay and severance benefits.

Government labor officials in the crisis-hit coastal cities have been scrambling to deal with a wave of such disputes, according to official media.

Four workers were injured in a scuffle with security guards when they took to the Shenzhen streets demanding back wages from Taiwan-invested appliance maker Shunyi Appliance Factory, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The factory bosses couldn't be contacted, said Xinhua, which blamed the wave of closures on the rising value of the yuan, spiraling costs, and eroding orders.

The Shenzhen Labor and Social Security Bureau on Tuesday publicized the names of 30 companies that owe a combined 12 million yuan (U.S. $1.75 million) in back pay to workers. The Bureau demanded that executives report to the local labor authorities within 30 days, Xinhua said.

Fear of social unrest

In some places, the government has paid workers out of its own coffers to avoid further social unrest. Xinhua said the township government of Zhangmutou had pledged a payout to workers at the bankrupt Smart Union factory in Dongguan city worth 24 million yuan (U.S.$3.5 million).

Chinese experts say governments at different levels plan to earmark money for contingency reserve funds to help unpaid employees, most of them migrant workers. Plans were also being put forward for a mandatory reserve fund contribution by companies at start-up.

As for the former Yijinli protesters, Yang said the workers who had received government payout seemed to have forgotten about their former colleagues being held by police.

A police officer who answered the phone at the Bao'an district police station confirmed that the detentions had been made during the protest.

"At that time we detained a few people who were making trouble. I can simply tell you that all the people we detained will be dealt with according to law, with all documentation approved by higher levels of leadership," he said.

"However, if there are any dissenting opinions from among the relatives about the way we are handling this, they can launch an appeal at the Shenzhen Municipal People's Court," he added.

China's national police chief has called on police officers to mend relations with ordinary Chinese people, and to be careful of how they use force to settle disputes.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Lan and in Mandarin by Gao Shan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.