Strike hits China shoe factories

May 6, 2014

Sid Ziochi reports on one of the biggest strikes in China's history, in an article for Australia's Red Flag newspaper. The report has been updated.

A HUGE strike took place in mid-April at Yue Yuen Industrial shoe factories in Dongguan, China. Labor activists estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 workers joined the strike, making it one of the largest industrial actions in the country in recent years. Most strikers had returned to work by the end of the month after the company agreed to some of their demands, according to a Reuters report.

Yue Yuen is the biggest manufacturer of sports shoes in the world. Its customers include Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Converse and Puma. The firm's consolidated revenue for March alone was $650 million. In China, a pair of Nike's new basketball shoes costs between 1,400 and 1,999 yuan in the renminbi (RMB) currency (between $224 to $320).

However, an assembly line worker receives a monthly salary of about RMB2,800 ($448). Those who produce thousands of shoes every month can't afford to buy two pairs with a whole month's pay.

This rate of exploitation doesn't satisfy the bosses of Yue Yuen, who have also been cheating their workers' pension fund for 10 years. According to China's labor law, an employer is required to contribute 14 percent of an employee's salary to the national social security fund. Yue Yuen pays much less than this. It didn't pay anything at all for some workers. It is estimated that Yue Yuen shortchanged the fund by $48 million each year.

Los Angeles marchers show their solidarity with Chinese strikers
Los Angeles marchers show their solidarity with Chinese strikers (SACOM Hong Kong)

Driven beyond endurance, workers have started to fight back. Small actions, such as demonstrations and roadblocks in the town, took place starting on April 5. On April 14, three of Yue Yuen's six factories in Dongguan were shut down. The next day, thousands of workers from the fourth factory broke through a blockade of management and police, and walked out. They were greeted by fervent chants and applause from their comrades. Later, about 20,000 workers marched through Dongguan.

Another 2,000 workers in Yue Yuen's factory in Jiangxi province went on strike in solidarity. Labor rights organizations and trade unions in Taiwan and Hong Kong also rallied to show their support.

The workers' demands are for a 30 percent wage increase and payment of the social security arrears. Management initially offered a pitiful RMB230 ($70) monthly allowance and claimed workers should contribute RMB300 a month to repay the social security fund. In other words, workers need to take a pay cut to cover the company's pension payment evasion!

Not surprisingly, the local government and its police are on the side of capital. Hundreds of workers have been beaten and arrested. Moreover, two labor activists were detained by the State Security Agency.

A Reuters report from late April said several workers from the Dongguan factory said they had returned to work after Yue Yuen agreed to make up the pension and housing payments it had evaded. "But workers would be watching carefully for concrete action, said one female worker," Reuters reported.

If the Yue Yuen workers have won their demands, it will be an inspiration to other workers. In any case, the strike has provided another illustration of the simmering discontent and potential for action among China's workers.

A previous version of this article appeared at Red Flag.

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