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`People's Daily' columnist -- `Time to defend Chinese workers' rights'

Honda factory in China.

By Li Hong

June 7, 2010 -- People's Daily -- Wherever exists exploitation and suppression, rebellion erupts. If the exploited are a majority of the society, the revolt draws even nearer and comes with a louder bout. For the past 30 years witnessing China's meteoric rise, multinationals and upstart home tycoons have rammed up their wealth making use of China's favourable economic policies as well as oversight loopholes. In sharp contrast, tens of millions of Chinese blue-collar workers who have genuinely generated the wealth and created the prosperity have been left far behind.

According to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a quarter of Chinese workers have not had a pay rise in pay in the past five years. The figure is perilously worrisome. Their harsh working conditions, low living standards and hardships in supporting older and younger family members add up, exacerbating psychological pressure.

The long queues of luxury cars running in China's cities shine our eyes, verifying modernisation of a huge country, but none of the flotilla belongs to the above "quarter of Chinese workers" whose salaries are at a standstill. It is logical to claim their livelihood is actually on decline taking in account the price rises in the years.

Hence, there came the widely reported mass labour strike at Japan's Honda's joint venture production line in Guangdong province to demand for a higher pay [see below], and the spate of rising employee suicides crippling Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group's mainland plant in Shenzhen City.

Reports say that the Honda workers' walk-out since May 27 has forced four Honda automobile assembly lines in China to shut doors because of shortage of key engine parts, inflicting huge losses on the firm. Honda finally agreed to a 24 per cent pay rise to the workers who returned to work last week. Also, Foxconn management has agreed to workers' uniform pay rise of 30 per cent.

The pay rises are long overdue. They should have come prior to workers' took radical measures.

Never expect something like labour strike to happen in China? Please bear in mind that workers on this globe belong to the same group. When the exploited labourers are forced to toil extra time, work under huge pressure and earn disproportional tiny wages -- often at less than 1500 yuan (US$220) a month in China, the disappointment and frustration gather and grow to anger, and eventually revolts break out.

For sure, the Honda and Foxcoon workers will boost and embolden other low-wage workers to move and defend for their legitimate labour and human rights. The allegation by some that the Honda strike has highlighted tensions between Chinese workers and foreign companies is simply not true, because it's totally unfair and unruly for businesses to seek exorbitant profits at the cost of their employees.

Now, some analysts have argued that workers' rising demand for higher salary would deprive China as a source of cheap labour and drive multinationals to move to other countries like India and Vietnam. But, is it time for this country to say no to low-value and labour-intensive manufacturing, and make a small climb on the industrial ladder?

Isn't business's overexploitation of employees disgraceful? Isn't Chinese workers' demand for a higher pay justified? (As a matter of fact, Japanese employees in that Honda plant are paid 50 times more than the average Chinese workers).

The government has a role to play. For many years, it has been, unethically, friendly in policy making towards businesses in order to ratchet up economic growth, but done little to solidify the interests of the workers. As a result, as the country has raked in stacks of foreign currencies as reserves, and businesses and tycoons had deep pockets, the welfare of vast numbers of labourers has been hardly improved.

The sustainability of the country's growth is now at stake. Only when the low paid, long neglected and voiceless are taken care of by the government, will the blue-collar workers' unrest, now brewing in some factories, not cascade, spread and form crushing waves.

[The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online. After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to in March 2009. Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics. He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.]

Support Honda workers in Foshan China

[Chinese version:]

To all those who are concerned with workers in China:

On May 17, 2010, more than 1800 Honda workers in Foshan decided to go on strike. By May 27, all four Honda plants in China had stopped production.

Why did the workers go on strike? It is because their wages are too low and their conditions are harsh! Formal workers at Honda in Foshan take home 1200 yuan (US$175) a month on average, while intern workers, 80% of its workforce, earn as little as 900 yuan (US$131) a month.

Intern workers are students from technical schools who are not protected by the national Labor Contract Law, because they work for Honda under an internship contract. They are given a wage below the local minimum and are not covered by social insurance. What can Honda workers do with the little wages they get, at a time where prices for everyday goods are getting more and more expensive? They have little left, apart from covering their basic necessities. Can they hope to take root in the city? No. Can they work with dignity? No. They cannot afford housing, medical care, child rearing, or to look after their parents. With high inflation, it is difficult for them to take care of their own livelihood.

With all these difficulties, they have reported their situation to management through internal channels, but have been ignored. Their report disappears like a stone in the sea. Thus they are forced to go on strike. They demand a pay raise to 2000-2500 yuan. This is a very reasonable demand, as this was only about the average wage level in Foshan three years ago.

During the strike, they hoped that the company would take their views seriously and alleviate their current difficulties. But what did they get as a response? They met with threats and ridicule and a plot to divide the workers. The company said they would respond in a week. What did the company do in the meantime? The company threatened them: whoever does not return to work will be fired. The company picked out the strike leaders and fired them. The company also threatened all intern workers that if they did not return to work, they will not get their diploma for graduation. This is what Honda did in the interim. On May 24, the company responded that they will provide 55 yuan food subsidy to each worker.

What a mockery they made of workers' demand! Workers are not beggars! Facing Honda's response, which clearly lacked sincerity, workers were angry and decided to continue their strike.

On May 26, Honda rolled out a proposal to divide the workers: 477 yuan raise for intern workers and 355 yuan raise for formal workers. They hoped to tempt intern workers to return to work and thus "divide and rule". What surprised Honda is the unity demonstrated by workers.

On May 27, workers counter-proposed a 800 yuan raise for all, with no discrimination. Yet Honda did not learn its lesson, but played the "divide and rule" game again: 634 yuan for intern workers after three months and 355 yuan for formal workers. At the same time, Honda exerted more pressure on intern workers and required them to sign a "no strike" commitment before 9 am, May 31. The company also brought local officials and teachers of technical schools to force intern workers to return to work before May 31. Honda had promised that they would address the problem with a positive attitude. Look at what happened. This is what Honda called a positive attitude.

Struggling for survival and for dignity, Honda workers are forced to go on strike. But Honda had no sincere intention to solve the problems; it continuously tried to divide the workers and mobilised others to exert pressure on them. At present, workers have agreed to return to work for three days and allow the management time to respond to their demands.

Now is the critical time for the workers' struggle. Therefore, we appeal to all Honda workers, all worker brothers and sisters, people in China who are concerned with workers, and people in the world who are concerned with workers, to support the struggles of Honda workers in Foshan!  It is because their struggles are reasonable and just. They resist the oppression of their exploiters and they fight for a dignified life for all workers.

Let us unite and exert pressure on Honda. We want to tell Honda: stop all your efforts to divide and suppress workers and meet workers' demands.

We most sincerely salute the courageous Honda workers!


Initiators: Editors of Chinese Workers Research Network, Dr. Yan Hairong (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), Dr. Alvin So (Professor, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Dr. Szeto May (University of Hong Kong), Wong Kai Hing (President of The Hong Kong Polytechinc University Students' Union), Dr. Chan Kingchi (City University of Hong Kong), Dong Xulin (Retiree from the United Nations), Dr. Du Jiping (Taiwan, editor of Pipan yu zaizao), Dr. Chen Yunzhong (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Dr. Barry Sautman (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Dr. Tong Xiaoxi (Chinese University of Agriculture), Dr. Fumie Ohashi (JSPS research fellow).

Signers: Dr. Wang Hui (professor, Qinghua University), Dr. Dong Qingyuan (engineer in USA), Dr. Fang Mou (scientist, USA), Dr. Ma Yaobang (writer, Canada), Wu Jianbing (poet, USA), Peng Zhaochang (University of Massachusetts), Liu Shenyu (scholar/writer, USA), Luo Chiyun (retired engineer), Dr. Ching Pao-yu (professor emeritus, Marygrove University), Dr. Bai Di (Drew University), Dr. Wang Dan (Hong Kong University), Dr. Chen I-Chung (Academia Sinica, Taiwan), Dr. Anita Chan (professor, Sydney University of Technology), Dr. Chen Kuan-Hsing (professor, Qinghua University, Taiwan), Zha Jianying (writer, the China representative of India-China Institute), Liang Xiaoyan (chief secretary of Beijing Western Sunshine Rural Development Foundation), Chung Ming Lai (Labour Action China), Zhan Yang (Ph.D. student at Binghamton University).

[The translator is not sure how to Romanise names of many signers from Taiwan. Not wanting to make mistakes in rendering their names, the translator apologises for not including them here. Please check the Chinese version for a fuller list of the signers.]

A Honda worker in China speaks out at close of historic strike

By Labor Notes

June 6, 2010 -- “Our parents have suffered from this cheap labour market and now they are getting old. Do we want to follow in the footstep of our parents?”, asks an anonymous Honda worker in China in an internet posting explaining the motivations behind a stunning two-week strike that shut down Honda’s production across the country.

Strikes are not illegal in China, but they are usually crushed, hushed up or settled so quickly few outside the immediate vicinity become aware of them. This action, to the contrary, starved Honda’s four Chinese assembly plants of key transmission and engine parts, set off a near-panic in the business press as investors fretted about the open show of defiance, and reportedly succeeded in winning a 24 per cent pay increase.

The 1900 workers at the parts plant, who make between $131 and $219 a month, had walked out demanding a 53 per cent rise in compensation and the ability to elect their union officials. There's no information yet about whether that demand has been met, but the plant is restarting production today as a small group of militants holds out against the settlement. Two strike leaders, meanwhile, were fired during the action.

Here’s the post, discovered and translated by Hong Kong labour activist Au Loong-Yu:

Honda is a Fortune 500 company! It earned more than 4 billion yuan (US$586 million) last year! It earned more than a billion the year before that! Let’s compare Honda with other businesses. But none can really compare with it! This is a Fortune 500 company which earned more than 4 billion in 2009 but only pays minimum wages to workers. It gives you a 1000 yuan a month, which is only enough for food, and holidays are not included! Would you dare to work for this company?

You may say Honda has contributed to our pensions and other companies have not. Mind you, it is illegal for employers to fail to contribute to a pension fund. You must file complaints to the labour bureau. A Fortune 500 company simply cannot do such openly illegal things! This time it increased our wages. 355 yuan! The increase is made up of a basic wage raise of 200 yuan, a living allowance raise of 35 yuan and a meal allowance raise of 120 yuan. You may say that after this pay raise our wage level reached 1500 yuan. All surrounding businesses also offer wages at this level. But how can one compare Honda with other businesses when Honda earns more than 4 billion yuan in annual profit?

And this profit may even increase in the future. We all know that the automotive industry is a highly profitable industry. This is created by us frontline workers! But what do those of us who create the profits get? If we are not satisfied we can of course resign, but Honda will continue to recruit people, and our brothers and sisters would continue to suffer here! Even if we quit we have to fight for our brothers’ and sisters’ benefit! This is another reason for us to continue to strike!

Some people even say that because we are just secondary technical school students and vocational school students, we do not deserve higher wages. First of all I would like to ask: are you looking down on us as technical secondary school students? I strongly despise you! Although we are technical secondary school students, we have created a profit of 4 billion yuan a year! Can you do that? No, you can’t!

On May 17 when the strike began, the high-level Japanese management ordered us to resume production. We responded that we would do so and gave them a week to reply to our demands or else we would quit. Then they secretly fired our leaders! The general manager, in his office, mocked us as fools. Where was their good will? So we went on strike again on May 21.

The Japanese managers have resorted to taking pictures of us, to threaten us to resume production! At this critical moment our great trade union did nothing for us! Instead they just wanted us to go back to the production line! Is this what a union should be doing? You take from our monthly wages 5 yuan for union dues but look what you had done for us!

On May 22 the Japanese manager sacked two of our leaders to threaten us to resume production. So is this your good will? On May 24 you announced that you would increase our allowances from 65 yuan to 120, an increase of just 55 yuan! So this is your good will? And you continue to make video recordings to threaten us. This is another reason why we continue to strike.

China! It has been promoting low-cost competition and cheap labour. Our GDP keeps growing! However, this growth relies on exploiting our cheap labour. We have created all this wealth but only get very low wages in return. Our wages are still at the level of the minimum wage. We are still struggling to get by with this. We created this wealth. Don’t we deserve to get better pay? With such deplorable wages, just how are we going to raise the overall level of our national economy?

This (kind of injustice) is just too common! Our parents have suffered from this cheap labour market and now they are getting old. And now, do we, the post 1980 and 1990 generation, want to follow in the footsteps of our parents? I believe no parent wants this. It is because they all once walked down this road and know how hard it is. We do not want to go this way either. Times have changed! So this kind of cheap labour regime must end!

Honda is a Japanese company and Japan is a capitalist country. But China is supposed to be a socialist country! The Japanese companies investing in China must follow the rules of China. Implement socialism! Do not give us capitalism!

Open letter of thanks from workers' representatives of Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

June 7, 2010 -- For the protection of workers’ rights and the right to democratic election of workers' representatives, the workers of Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. Ltd has stopped work for nearly half a month. During the stoppage of work, we received support from both the domestic and international communities. The support has given tremendous boost in the morale of the workers’ struggle!

At 3pm on June 4, 2010, the management and the workers' representatives had formal negotiations. In the presence of Mr. Zeng Qinghong, member of the National People’s Congress (deputy director and general manager of Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., Ltd.) and Mr. Chang Kai (director of the School of Labor and Human Resources of Renmin University of China), both sides reached consensus in the negotiation of workers’ wages.

The labour disputes have brought great damage to both the management and the workers. It is our wish therefore to build an effective communication platform as the next phase of work. On the workers' side, we hope to achieve democratic election of trade union representatives and the establishment of a collective negotiation mechanism to ensure protection of the interests of both the management and workers. Only with a real and effective communication platform between the two sides can further disputes be prevented and harmonious labour-management relations established.

On behalf of all the production-line workers, the negotiation delegation would like to express our truest and most sincere gratitude to all the people who have shown their concern and given their support to us in the domestic and the international communities. Without your support and encouragement, our strength was limited and our demands would not have gained attention and resolution.

To many people who have conveyed their apprehension about us, we would like to assure you that we will act according to the law and regulations for what is entitled to us in a reasonable manner. We strongly believe that through adequate communication and mutual trust, we will be able to resolve disputes and establish good cooperative relation with the management in the future.

Elected workers’ representatives, Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing Co. Ltd, Nanhai District, Foshan City.


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