Thousands Protest For Better Benefits at Top Chinese Shoe Factory

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china-dongguan-labor-strike-april-2014.jpg Chinese riot police confront Yue Yuen factory workers in Dongguan in a screen grab from a China Labor Watch video, April 15, 2015.
Photo courtesy of China Labor Watch

Updated at 01:30 P.M. EST on 2014-04-16

Thousands of workers at a shoe factory in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong went on strike for a third day on Wednesday amid violent clashes with armed police and in the absence of a response to their demands for better benefits, workers said.

More than 30,000 workers at the Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings factory in Dongguan city took to the streets in protest at unpaid social benefits, improper labor contracts and low wages, clashing with riot police who beat protesters on Tuesday with batons outside the municipal government, striking workers and rights groups said.

"Right now, we are still in deadlock," a Yue Yuen worker who asked to remain anonymous told RFA. "The only people on the shop floor now are officials and interns, who really have very little to do with this in terms of their interests."

Asked if street protests had continued on Wednesday, he said. "Yes, and they will until they respond to us [to our satisfaction]."

An eyewitness surnamed Liang who took part in the protests told RFA that some protesters were in hospital following clashes with police outside the Dongguan municipal government buildings on Tuesday.

"More than 10 people were injured, and quite a few are in hospital," he said. "But there were so many people there, it was hard to see everything that went on."

He said police had recorded the demonstration with video cameras, before detaining those they had identified from the footage.

"They come and arrest you in the evening," he said. "As far as I know, maybe 10 or 20 people have been detained."

He said another injury was reported on Wednesday.

"The workers kicked up a fuss about that," Liang said. "Management didn't come out; they are thinking of ways to suppress us, but basically they can no longer suppress this."

"If they don't respond to our satisfaction, we will continue to strike."

The factory has released a notice saying it will dismiss the workers if they continue, a local labor rights group told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday.

Government reaction

Lin Dong, an employee who answered the phone at the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Justice Service Department, a rights organization in close contact with the labor force, said the government had yet to make a clear statement on the strike.

"The factory has demanded that workers return to their posts within three days, on pain of getting fired," Lin said. "Things are looking much grimmer today than they were yesterday or the day before."

"The local government has drafted in 2,000 police from Guangzhou and Zhuhai to keep order, and a lot of them are patrolling the streets with police dogs," he said.

"If the factory dismisses large numbers of workers, there could be a backlash in the workers' mood, which means anything could happen, and the government would respond with huge force to suppress it," Lin warned.

"Events might happen that we have no wish to see."

He said the group's workers had already been detained and questioned twice by police, who appeared to believe they had incited the workers to strike in the first place.

"[On Monday] three of us went to Gaobu, and we had just got there ... when state security police took us away," Lin said. "We had arranged to meet some of the workers via the Internet, but ... they had already intercepted our messages."

"More than 20 plainclothes police came and took us away as soon as we arrived."

All were later released after several hours' questioning, Lin said.

Worker complaints

An employee who answered the phone at government offices in Gaobu township, where the Yue Yuen factory is located, declined to comment.

"We are following developments, but you need to talk to the propaganda department, who will have someone who can answer your questions," he said.

Repeated calls to the township government propaganda office rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday, however.

According to the U.S.-based group China Labor Watch (CLW), Yue Yuen's Dongguan plant is one of the world's largest shoe manufacturing facilities, and its workers are angry over unpaid social insurance and housing fund payments, as well as "improper" labor contracts.

"This strike is likely one of the largest Chinese worker strikes in recent history," the group said in a statement on its website.

U.S.-based labor rights activist Liu Nianchun said Chinese workers find it hard to protect their legal rights in the absence of independent trade unions, which are banned by Beijing.

"The workers must set up an independent labor union which could then negotiate with factory management," Liu said.

"Then, the factory wouldn't dare to bully the workers like this, and to withhold their social security payments."

Ongoing strike

This week's strike comes after an initial strike on April 5 yielded an unsatisfactory response from management, it said, adding that social insurance disputes are among the commonest triggers of labor unrest in China today.

Citing its own survey of more than 400 factories over the past 10 years, CLW said not one had fully complied with all its social insurance obligations under Chinese law.

According to Yue Yuen's website, the factory produces shoes for foreign brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance, and is partly owned by Taiwanese investors.

The strike comes ahead of a major production run aimed at supplying shoes for the summer season in Europe and the United States.

The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin recorded 202 labor disputes in the country during the first quarter of 2014, mostly in the manufacturing sector, a year-on-year increase of more than 30 percent as China's economic growth slows.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan and Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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