China ushered in the beginning of 2012 with a fresh wave of strikes and protests across three provinces this week.
In the southwestern province of Sichuan, steel workers took to the streets in protest on Tuesday, a local rights group said.
"After the workers of the Chengdu Chuanhua group's recent protest, they successfully negotiated a pay rise of 400-500 yuan (U.S. $63-78) [a month]," said Pu Fei, a spokesman for the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights group.
"The workers of Pangang Steel copied them, and also called for a raise," Pu said.
State-owned Pangang Steel workers, who sometimes fulfill orders for China's military, typically make around 1,500 yuan (U.S. $237) per month, but were calling for a raise to 2,000 yuan (U.S. $315), he said.
"Pangang is a state-owned enterprise which takes on military production, so the workers didn't dare to contact the media," Pu added.
Calls to Pangang and Chengdu Chanhua went unanswered during office hours on Thursday, while an officer who answered the phone at a nearby police station declined to comment.
More protests planned
A witness surnamed Zhang told RFA: "The strike started in the morning of Jan. 4. It's hard to say how many people were there; some people are saying tens of thousands, some say a few thousand."
He said more protests were being planned.
"A lot of people are very unhappy that we are only talking about democracy online," Zhang added. "They are planning to take action next week."
He said many people in Sichuan had been spurred on by the concessions won by rebel villagers in the Guangdong village of Wukan last month, following armed clashes over barricades between local residents angry at official corruption and armed police.
"A lot of people have been very encouraged by what they saw in Wukan," Zhang said. "They are saying we should learn from Wukan."
The total workforce of the two companies numbers around 14,000 workers, according to the groups' websites.
Toy factory strike
Meanwhile, security was tight in the southern city of Wuzhou after toy factory workers began a strike there to protest against unpaid wages and lack of year-end bonuses, an employee said.
"There were a few hundred people at least," said an employee who answered the phone at the Wuzhou Yongwei Toy Factory. "They gave it to them ... they have handed out [the money]."
"It is pretty much over now."
Photos of the strike posted online showed large numbers of female workers in yellow uniforms gathered outside the factory gates, with large numbers of police forming a cordon around the area.
Microblog posts said the workers were angry because they had not yet received November's paycheck, nor was the company issuing a bonus.
Reports of a strike at the Xiao Tian'e Group in the eastern city of Wuxi also appeared online, although an employee at the group's washing machine factory denied them.
"Nothing like that happened here," the employee said in an interview on Thursday. "Everyone is at work right now."
"I can't confirm whether there was [a strike] or not," the employee added. "But I didn't see one."
Guangxi-based commentator Jing Chu said falling wages was the biggest single factor behind the wave of strikes.
"China offers low wages and scant protection of human rights," Jing said. "These workers have expended their blood, sweat, and tears in labor, but they get very little money in return."
"[What's more], they have no rights to speak of; they are treated like slaves in the factories. There are a lot of sweatshops in China."
Reported by Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.