Chinese Strikers Win, but Unity Crumbles

June 13

ZHONGSHAN, China — Striking workers at a Honda auto parts factory here in southeastern China have won higher wages — but not necessarily for themselves.

Factory managers began hiring a steady stream of replacement workers on Sunday, and a significant number of strikers went back to work after increases in wages and benefits, even as many others remained on strike.

The 20 or so members of the factory’s new council of workers, chosen by the workers to represent them when the strike began on Wednesday morning, went into hiding on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, fearing retaliation by the local authorities.

The auto parts factory increased wages by 11 percent and an allowance for food and housing by 33 percent, as of Sunday. The combined increase in wages and benefits was considerably less than the near doubling of wages alone sought by the strikers. But the increases offered by the factory were enough to make the jobs attractive to replacement workers.

The remaining strikers held a small rally outside the factory on Sunday morning but then went home and made no effort to picket the factory as normal operations resumed.

“We don’t want to be too extreme or else the local government will put us in jail,” said one of the strikers in an interview at a nearby shopping mall. He insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The striker added that a labor official from the municipal government had told them that the factory management was acting in compliance with the law and that the workers had broken the law through disruptive behavior.

Honda Lock, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda in Japan, owns 65 percent of the factory. The other 35 percent is held by Xiang Suo, a local business owned by the municipal government.

Honda advertised on television for replacement workers and hired employment agencies to help find them, a factory recruiter said. Young men and women showing up at the factory gates looking for work said that they had heard about job opportunities through word of mouth or had met factory managers who walked through the nearby shopping mall seeking workers.

Striking workers had held a rare protest march on Friday morning, chanting slogans as they walked down the main road of an industrial park. A double row of black-clad police wearing helmets with face masks and carrying small, round riot shields blocked the march where the road intersected a wide avenue.

By midday on Sunday, four Chinese recruiters wearing white jump suits with bright red “Honda Lock” logos had set up a recruitment tent at the side of the avenue, about 10 yards from where the riot police had stood. With a dark blue roof, a long table covered in red and plenty of comfortable, light blue plastic chairs with arm rests, the recruitment tent proved an attractive stopping point for curious young men and women who were walking or riding bicycles along the road.

The strike here could help Honda end up with a younger workforce with fewer family obligations that might distract them from their jobs. Most visitors to the tent were enthusiastically welcomed by the four recruiters, but not all.

When a woman holding a baby showed up early Sunday afternoon, she seemed to be the only visitor told that the factory would operate on three shifts and she might be assigned to an inconvenient shift. The woman left without applying for a job.

The factory is a long-established operation that had a stable work force and offered a housing allowance for workers to rent tiny apartments, instead of providing dormitories, in which raising a baby can be more difficult.

A Honda spokesman in Beijing did not respond to numerous calls and messages for comment, while Honda managers at the factory also declined to comment on the record about personnel issues.

The strikers here had wanted to match the pay obtained by workers at a Honda transmission factory in nearby Foshan nearly two weeks ago. But they appear to have miscalculated on an important point.

Transmission factories are highly automated operations that require skilled employees with considerable training. The transmission factory workers in Foshan mostly have the Chinese equivalent of community college degrees in subjects like mechanical engineering.
By contrast, the factory here assembles door locks, rear and side mirrors and other low-value products. One of the factory recruiters at the recruitment tent said that Honda only required a junior high school education for job applicants.

Honda is still trying to lure back strikers, however. A large sign at the factory gates said that last Wednesday through Saturday, the days when the factory was closed because of the strike, would be counted as paid work days. Management also offered double pay for hours worked on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, as the factory tries to catch up on lost production.

Striking workers who do not return by the end of the day on Tuesday will be dealt with according to national labor laws, the factory notice said. Those laws allow the dismissal of employees who do not show up for work.

A young woman who came to the factory gates looking for work on Sunday said that she had traveled two hours by bus after hearing by phone from a friend that Honda was hiring and offered better working conditions than many factories.

“I can’t stand the 12-hour shifts at other factories — here it’s only eight hours,” she said.

The crumbling of the strike shows that employers and the authorities retain powerful options in China in the face or rising labor unrest over recent weeks. Strong economic growth has fueled demand for factory workers even as more young Chinese are choosing to go to college instead.

The total population of young Chinese has leveled off because of tightening enforcement through the 1980s and 1990s of China’s “one child policy.”

But laws and social norms still favor employers. There is little stigma associated with strike breakers and scant sign of worker solidarity in what remains officially a communist country.

Asked what would become of the strikers, several replacement workers shrugged and said they did not know.

The strike activist who didn’t want to be named said that he had nothing against the replacement workers, either. The new employees are trying to make a living, he said, adding that “they don’t know me.”

After allowing nationwide television and newspaper reporting of the early days of the transmission factory strike, Beijing authorities have imposed severe restrictions, without explanation, on the ability of the domestic media to report on labor unrest.

The Chinese government’s willingness to help a Japanese company replace Chinese workers with strike breakers could cause a backlash in China if it became widely known. Some hostility toward Japan still simmers in China as a result of atrocities during World War II.

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