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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Labor Disputes Spread in China

NY Times

Striking workers outside a Honda factory in Zhongshan, China on Thursday.

HONG KONG — Scattered strikes have started to ripple into Chinese provinces previously untouched by the recent labor unrest, while striking workers at a giant Honda auto parts factory here in southeastern China said they were ready for a possible showdown on Friday.

There were fresh reports on Thursday of strikes at foreign-owned factories in at least five other cities. But all of these strikes appeared to have ended quickly as managers, faced with an acute labor shortage, sought to address workers’ demands.

Chinese-owned companies tend not to disclose when strikes have occurred, and it is not clear how many strikes have taken place in recent days at these businesses.

The demands of striking workers have been overwhelmingly economic, mainly for sharp increases in pay. But while there has been no sign of any political demands, the work stoppages have potential political overtones as well.

Large groups of workers filled a lane next to a muddy canal in front of the Honda auto parts factory here on Thursday afternoon and criticized not just the company but also the local government for supporting the company. The workers said that large numbers of the police had been positioned in the factory on Wednesday and Thursday in an attempt to intimidate them, and added that their resolve to remain on strike had not changed.

Workers described an organizational structure that seemed unusually democratic for China. Each factory department’s workers gathered, discussed who would be their most persuasive representative and then selected that individual to represent them on a factorywide council that has held negotiations with management, they said.

Large groups of workers repeatedly gathered around a foreign reporter even though clean-cut men in crisp shirts, probably plainclothesmen, were hovering nearby. The workers, who insisted on anonymity because of lingering concerns about retaliation, said that a company manager had announced over loudspeakers late Thursday afternoon that all workers would be asked on Friday morning to sign a new contract and would be dismissed if they failed to do so.

Asked if they would sign, the workers replied with a chorus of “no”, and said that they would gather outside the factory gates on Friday morning to express their displeasure. After going on strike on Wednesday morning, the workers have marched around inside the factory shouting slogans through the day on Wednesday and Thursday, before going home to cramped apartments in nearby buildings each evening.

The Chinese government strongly discourages large outdoor protests, and it is unclear how the local authorities would respond to one at the factory on Friday morning.

The workers voiced skepticism that the company would meet their demands, mainly an 89 percent increase in their pay, currently 900 renminbi a month, or $132.

Workers said that they had read news reports on the Internet that Honda had already granted pay raises of 500 renminbi a month in settling other strikes. Honda has not confirmed the percentage, while indicating it was large.

A municipal official standing with a group of private security guards outside the factory said that there was no evidence that Honda had broken any employment laws. The workers “just want more money, they’re inspired by the other Honda strikes,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity.

A Honda spokesman declined to comment on the details of the strike in Zhongshan.

The Chinese authorities have allowed some media coverage in the past two weeks of labor unrest, while Li Keqiang, the deputy prime minister and the heir apparent to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, voiced support early this week for higher wages. The government even allowed national television coverage for two days of the strike at the Honda transmission factory two weeks ago, before abruptly barring further domestic media coverage.

But there have been signs lately of a more restrictive attitude. Workers here complained that when they posted comments on the strike here on the Web sites of Baidu, a big Chinese Internet company, the comments were quickly expunged.

The workers also described seeing at least two Chinese reporters politely escorted away by the police when they tried to cover the strike Wednesday.

The strike started Wednesday morning when a woman employee showed up with her identity card improperly attached to her shirt and was denied entry by a security guard. The women criticized the guard, who responded by shoving her to the ground, the workers said.

The workers provided a copy of what they said was a flier distributed by management Thursday morning. The flier offered an increase of 100 renminbi a month for workers’ food and housing allowances, which are currently 300 renminbi a month.

But the flier did not include any increase in base pay, and said that the woman involved in the altercation with the guard had been adequately compensated by the company with a payment of 10 renminbi.

Many workers said that a strike for higher wages was inevitable even if the woman had not been pushed, and that the incident was only the final spark for a walkout.

Brother Industries of Japan said that strikes had stopped work for the past week at two sewing machine factories in Xi’an in central China’s Shaanxi Province. Production resumed Thursday morning after what Zhao Wei, the president of the government-approved union at the factories, described as “concessions” by the company; he refused to be more specific and the company said that negotiations were continuing.

There were reports Thursday as well of strikes at several Taiwanese-owned factories. These included a sporting goods factory in Jiangxi Province in east-central China, a liquid crystal display components factory in Shanghai, a plastic factory at another city near Shanghai, and an audio components factory across the Pearl River from Zhongzhan in Shenzhen.

Honda has already reached settlements in the past two weeks at a transmission factory and an exhaust factory in Foshan, about two hours’ drive northwest of Zhongshan.

The latest strike to close a Honda supplier involves 1,700 workers who have stopped work at a sprawling, two-story factory next to a muddy canal lined by imported eucalyptus trees in Zhongshan. The factory makes rear and side mirrors, door locks and a wide range of other auto parts for Honda assembly plants all over the world, and the strike by its workers is beginning to raise larger issues for Honda, for the city of Zhongshan and for China.

The factory is 65 percent owned by Honda Lock, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda, and 35 percent owned by a local Chinese partner, said Takayuki Fujii, a Honda spokesman in Beijing.