China Labor Unrest Approaches Boiling Point

Workers not receiving benefits required by Chinese law
Workers at a Yue Yuen Industrial factory / AP

Workers at a Yue Yuen Industrial factory / AP

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One of China’s largest ever labor strikes is likely to continue and could fuel more unrest across the country, observers say.

About 30,000 workers for shoemaker Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) Ltd. continued the strike for a fourth day on Thursday in protest of unpaid social insurance and housing assistance. Hundreds of police with riot shields are reportedly stationed near Yue Yuen’s facilities, which supply shoes for large U.S. companies such as Adidas and Nike.

A video posted on Tuesday by China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York-based labor rights organization, appeared to show riot police dispelling a peaceful protest by workers.

Li Qiang, CLW executive director, said in an interview through a translator that while wages have risen in China in recent years, they are still quite low and without the additional benefit of insurance. A typical warehouse worker for Yue Yuen makes about $565 a month.

“We workers abide by laws. Shouldn’t the employer abide by laws, too?” a 38-year-old worker at Yue Yuen told the Wall Street Journal.

Rural citizens in China increasingly work at large factory complexes, such as the Yue Yuen factory in the southern city of Dongguan, where they are housed in dormitories. Those migrant workers are now permitted to take their social security benefits with them when they retire to rural villages, another factor that has heightened their demands, Qiang said.

“Because the issues that workers are facing in this factory are faced by a lot of workers around China, a lot of workers are paying attention to this and how it’s resolved,” he said.

China’s slowing economy could further contribute to worker-employer tensions in the coming years. Chinese officials reported this week that economic growth fell to 7.4 percent in the first quarter, an 18-month low, as the country gradually shifts from an export-based economy to one more focused on domestic consumption.

China’s controversial one-child policy will likely exacerbate the economic slowdown as its working age population shrinks. The total population of workers in China—aged 15 to 64—will begin to contract between 2020 and 2025, according to estimates by the United Nations.

Forced abortions, some late term, continue in China despite the recent easing of restrictions in its one-child policy. Most of the 13 million annual abortions in China are forced, according to pro-life women’s group All Girls Allowed.

Qiang said he expects the protests to continue because the problems are so widespread across China. After investigating more than 400 factories in the past decade, CLW found that none of them provided workers with all of the social insurance benefits required by Chinese law.

“The protests are going to continue and probably increase, but it’s not because of the labor market squeeze in China,” Qiang said. “Worker consciousness is getting stronger.”