HONG KONG—Hundreds of workers at a factory in southern China owned by Danish shipping giant Maersk rioted earlier this week, clashing with security guards and smashing property after a colleague was beaten for jumping a lunchtime queue.
“It is total chaos here. We don’t even know where to start,” a member of the administrative staff at Maersk Container Industri in the port of Machong, near Dongguan city, said.
“There are lots of broken windows. Wherever there was a piece of glass, it has now been broken,” he told RFA’s Cantonese service.
The riots were triggered by a dispute in the canteen Monday lunchtime involving migrant worker Zhao Hongwei.
Zhao said he was beaten by security guards after he refused to pay a fine of 200 yuan for jumping the barrier in the canteen.
China's economic miracle is being accomplished at the expense of people's rights and at the expense of their health.
“I didn’t have time to queue because [our shift ended late, so] we only had 30 minutes to eat, so I jumped over the barrier. The security guards saw me and called me over. They wanted to fine me 200 yuan. I said that was too much. So they just kept on upping the amount until it was more than 1,000 yuan,” he said.
“As I was leaving the canteen, they blocked my way and wouldn’t let me leave. They were waiting for me outside the door. They surrounded me and started hitting me with their walkie-talkies around the head,” Zhao said.
“I managed to get away, and then I ran back to the canteen and shouted ‘The security guards are beating me!’ They could see it was true because I was covered in blood by then. The workers were already very angry and they rushed to attack the security guards. The guards saw they were getting some makeshift weapons, and they fled.”
Zhao, who was taken to hospital by police along with an injured security guard, said the workers had been angry at pay cuts and demands from management for greater productivity and longer hours for a very long time.
After the police left, they starting attacking the main administrative building, smashing all the windows with bricks, Zhao said. Some reports said they set fire to the security guards’ office and their living quarters. The riot lasted into the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Local media reports said the workers were angry after Maersk adjusted the number of days off that they would have over the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. The new system allowed workers to have five days off over the national holiday period, but only if they worked overtime during weekends prior to the holiday.
Employees argued that if they worked overtime on weekends, then they should be paid for it (and not given days off for a major Chinese holiday that they should receive anyway), according to a report in the Southern Metropolis Daily translated and posted on the CSR Asia blog.
Labor expert Han Dongfang estimates that strikes involving at least 1,000 workers occur daily in the economic powerhouse that is the Pearl River Delta, along with many smaller strikes.
Han, who hosts the Labor Bulletin program for RFA’s Mandarin service said there were also many smaller strikes daily in the region, where about one-third of Chinese exports are manufactured and where, according to a published study, workers lose or break about 40,000 fingers on the job every year.
Zhao, who has worked at Maersk for nearly a year, said the security guards often bullied and beat up the workers, but it was the workers who always ended up getting fined by the company. The office workers were unhappy too, because the company kept cutting their wages.
“Why do you have to take the side of the security guards in your factory?” he asked. “The security guards were in the wrong here. Added to that, you keep cutting our wages and demanding greater productivity and longer hours.”
Repeated attempts to interview a senior executive at Maersk met with no response.
An officer who answered the phone at the Machong township police station declined to comment on the incident.
But an official at the local government’s foreign trade and economic affairs bureau said they would be investigating. “We will liaise with all sides and investigate this manner,” an official said.
Han Dongfang says China’s labor problems are widespread and largely unrecognized in the wider world. He estimates that there is a major strike of at least 1,000 workers somewhere in the country at least once a day.
“The international community is in the middle of a completely unrealistic fantasy about China, which states that because there is economic development in China, that things will inevitably improve gradually,” Han said on the launch of his recent book on China’s labor movement A Cry for Justice .
But things won’t turn out that way, Han says. “China’s economic miracle is being accomplished at the expense of people’s rights and at the expense of their health, and the international community needs to understand this.”
“Those who infringe on the rights of the Chinese worker know exactly what they are doing. These people do not have the power to negotiate. Their own government refuses to respect or enforce legislation. In such a climate, we have got to the point where bosses are allowed to do exactly as they please, and infringe the rights of their workforce in the most blatant manner.”
He called for a wider recognition of value of negotiated settlements between labor and management. “If collective bargaining was going on at the level of China’s companies, this in itself would provide a valuable education to China’s bosses, and put more pressure on them.”
“It would prevent them from doing exactly as they please. This would not only have the effect of strengthening workers’ rights; it would also prevent the more flagrant abuses of those rights,” Han told RFA’s Mandarin service.
In 2007, factories that supplied more than a dozen corporations, including US giants Wal-Mart, Disney and Dell, were accused of unfair labor practices, including using child labor, forcing employees to work 16-hour days on fast-moving assembly lines, and paying workers less than minimum wage, according to a recent report in the New York Times .
Minimum wage in Guangzhou province, part of the Pearl River Delta area, is about 55 U.S. cents an hour.
Han urged multinational companies to give greater consideration to workers’ welfare and rights.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Yong-tim, and in Mandarin by Shen Hua. 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.