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China’s workers turn up the heat in summer of protest

China’s long hot summer saw workers across the country stage strikes and protests against low pay, wage arrears and poor working conditions. In the three months from June to August 2013, CLB recorded a total of 183 incidents on our Strike Map, up seven percent from the previous three months, and more than double the 89 incidents recorded from June to August in 2012.* In July alone, we recorded 78 incidents, with another 67 in August.

Undeterred by record high temperatures, workers regularly took to the streets in protest. While most protests occurred in or close to the workplace, on at least 11 occasions workers deliberately blocked roads and bridges in order to further their demands. On one occasion, in temperatures of 39 degrees Celsius, workers at a textile factory in Nanjing blocked the roads in Luhe district demanding the payment of wage arrears after the boss ran off.

Not surprisingly, there was also spike in police intervention and arrests during this period, with 22 incidents seeing a police response, double the 11 incidents in the previous three months. Nine strikes ended with arrests, compared with only four from March to May. In Guangdong, for example, police detained 14 workers from Xinrongxin Kitchen Appliance in Shunde district on 27 August after they took to the streets demanding a total of four million yuan in wage arrears.

However, it is important to note that based on data from June to August 2012, workers in China now seem to be facing a more “friendly” police force and fewer arrests. In the summer of 2012, about 47 percent of the recorded incidents saw a police intervention, and almost 17 percent ended with some arrests or detentions; in 2013, however, the numbers dropped to 12 percent and five percent respectively.

Guangdong, which has a huge concentration of labour-intensive factories and migrant workers, continues to be the most prominent province in terms of labour disputes. One third of all the disputes recorded from June to August occurred there.

Likewise, manufacturing, which has been a major driving force behind China’s economic development during past two decades, still accounts for more than 40 percent of the strikes and worker protests in China. For example, more than a thousand workers at Shanghai CIMC Reefer Containers struck against excessively long working hours (12 hours per day), poor working conditions (workshop temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius), and a subservient company trade union that ignored workers welfare and sided with the employer.

There were also numerous strikes and protests in the transport sector over the summer with 65 incidents in June, July and August, compared with 48 in the previous three months - a 35 percent increase. Taxi strikes, predominated with drivers complaining about high license fees, rising fuel costs, poor government management, and increasing competition from unregistered and illegal vehicles.

One trend of particular note in the strike map data is the increasing number of disputes in larger enterprises, those with 100 to 1000 employees. The proportion jumped from 35 percent in the months of June, July and August 2012 to 60 percent in the same period this year. In addition we noted five strikes involving more than a thousand people. In the manufacturing hub of Dongguan, for example, more than a thousand women workers staged a strike against wage cuts on 14 June and blocked the roads outside Hop Lun, a Swedish-owned garment company.

During the same period, the percentage of incidents in small and medium-sized companies, those with fewer than 100 employees, dropped from 58 percent to 31 percent. One possible explanation could be that more and more small enterprises are simply going out of business or merging with larger firms. A report in Forbes China on 20 June noted that, due to a lack of creativity, innovation and government support, small and medium-sized companies in China are increasingly facing the threat of bankruptcy.

Note: This year-on-year increase may have been influenced by an increase in the amount of information about strikes and protests on social media as well as more open reporting in the traditional media in China.

CLB’s strike map experienced major technical problems during the summer but is now functioning properly and the outstanding data has been re-entered. However, a few minor problems still need to be fixed and we would be grateful if readers could point out any problems that they discover whilst using the map.

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