Partial victory for Honda workers suggests a reasonably healthy state of labour relations

As the week-long strike at Honda Lock faded today, the picture that emerges is one of a relatively healthy and dynamic system of labour relations, albeit one that is still far from ideal.

Emboldened by the success of strikes at two other Honda components plants, the workers at Honda Lock had asked for a wage increase of around 70 percent. After protracted negotiations and intense pressure from the workforce, management finally offered an increase in pay and benefits of around 20 percent. This, combined with attempts by management to recruit new employees, was enough to convince the majority of workers to return to the production line on Monday morning.

I suspect the workers were not happy with Honda’s offer but realized it was the best they were going to get, for the time being at least. This is how collective bargaining works: Workers’ demand X, management offers Y, and the two sides eventually end up compromising at Z. Workers don’t always get what they want but something is always better than nothing.

The reason Honda Lock could successfully offer only a limited increase is because management knew the offer would be sufficient to attract other workers to replace the production line workers on strike.

The wage increase at Honda Lock gives the lie to widely circulated reports of a “labour famine” in the Pearl River Delta. Labour shortages only existed because companies refused to offer decent wages. As soon as a halfway decent salary and reasonable benefits were offered, recruiters had no problem finding new hires.

The new wage rates at Honda Lock probably reflect the current market rate for low-skilled labour in Zhongshan’s Xiaolan’s township, where the factory is located. Indeed, there are have been reports of other factories in the township unilaterally raising wages by similar amount in a bid to forestall strike action at their plants.

The downside of the strike at Honda Lock is that some of the organizers might end up losing their jobs. Of course, strike leaders should never be fired or persecuted for doing the job their factory trade union officials should be doing; standing up for the rights and interests of their co-workers. Organizing a strike is not illegal in China, and given that there is no formal mechanism within factories that allows workers to present demands to management in peaceful negotiations, they often have no choice but to strike.

That said, getting sacked is not the worst thing that can happen to a production line worker in China. After all, workers walk off the job all the time. One of the sacked leaders of the Foshan strike, Tan Guocheng, for example, planned to leave his job regardless when he shut down production and led his co-workers at the Honda transmission plant out on strike on 17 May. He eventually returned to his home town in Hunan where he is now taking a three-month course learning to operate excavation equipment. He told the New York Times, he hopes to find work somewhere in Hunan.
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