Strikes spread across China

Waves of wildcat strikes continue to spread across China’s industrial heartland. More than 200 workers at a Singapore-owned electronics plant in Shanghai remained on strike for a third day Dec. 2 to protest a management plan for mass layoffs and a plant relocation. Blue-jacketed workers, chanting slogans and holding banners demanding management accountability, blocked the entrance to the factory owned by Hi-P International, whose customers include Apple and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. (Reuters, Dec. 2)

More than 100 workers in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, blockaded a Tesco retail chain outlet preventing shoppers from entering, in a dispute over wages. Some held a banner reading: “We want to protect our rights. Return our blood and sweat money.” The Tesco is slated to close in coming weeks, and workers fear it will do so before long-owed back wages are paid. (The Guardian, Nov. 30)

In recent weeks, thousands of workers in the industrial southern provinces have walked of the job—at plants producing New Balance shoes, Apple and IBM keyboards, underwear, furniture, and Japanese Citizen watches. Workers at the watch-making subcontractor in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, launched a 13-day strike to demand back pay stretching back seven years—despite the legal requirement that such claims could go back only two years. Refusing to include the official union in negotiations, 586 workers signed a petition giving their power of representation to an activist labor lawyer. The collective bargaining that resolved the strike included a workers’ committee at the table, winning in deep concessions by the employer.

Protesting the government’s failure to boost wages as promised, municipal street cleaners in Nanjing on Nov. 16 collected garbage on their normal routes—and then piled it high on busy city streets, obstructing pedestrian and car traffic. And in a highly unusual coordinated campaign, Pepsi bottling workers in five cities all took a day off Nov. 14 to protest the sale of their plants to a Taiwanese company. Workers launched an online campaign to bring in all 20,000 workers from 24 Pepsi bottling plants in China. (Labor Notes, Dec. 2; LAT, Nov. 28; Shanghaiist, Nov. 17; Xinhua, Oct. 24)

See our last posts on China and the global econo-protests.

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  1. “The workers are animals. Let’s replace them with robots.”
    Frank Pasquale writes on the Balkinization blog, Jan. 20:

    Among the billionaires at the vanguard of global capital, Terry Gou of Hon Hai (also known as Foxconn) deserves special recognition for his honesty. “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said the chairman. His company has also begun building “an empire of robots” to replace a whining workforce.

    To get a better sense of why the “animals” may be complaining, be sure to listen to Mike Daisey’s extraordinary report on his trip to Shenzhen, home of a massive Foxconn factory. Here’s one excerpt:

    N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.

    I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.

    But that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently no none in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.

    When workers are already treated as machines, perhaps their replacement by robots should be a cause for celebration. But the question then becomes: what do the displaced do for a living? Is there an alternative to exploitation?

    See our last post on the coming rule of the robots.

  2. “Ethical iPhone”? Don’t hold your breath…
    We’re happy to see this development—a global campaign of coordinated protests against Apple over working conditions in its Chinese plants, held in various cities worldwide on Feb. 9. Writes the Washington Post:

    The protesters have collected more than 250,000 signatures from users on sites such as and The petitions will be delivered to the company, while demonstrations will be held in New York, San Francisco, London, Sydney and Bangalore.

    But while Forbes informs us (with evident unhappiness) that some are calling for a boycott of Apple, it appears the official organizers of the protests are not among them. CNNMoney tells us their petition is asking for an “Ethical iPhone.”

    We say that is probably an inherent contradiction in terms—but certainly if the protests are backed up with no teeth…

  3. American pseudo-journalism hurts Chinese workers
    We have to admit that it irked us to have to favorably cite the annoying This American Life for Mike Daisey‘s reportage from Apple’s China factories. Now we are sadly vindicated in our distaste for this popular public radio program. It seems that Daisey played a little fast and loose with the facts, prompting some unseemly on-air back-peddaling. Here is the basic substance, from a March 23 Guardian piece by Mark Lawson dissecting the ethics of affair:

    A theatre monologue called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, performed at theatres around the US over the past two years by the American performer-lobbyist Mike Daisey, takes the form of a first-person account of a visit to the Foxconn factory in China where iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are made. Daisey reports encounters with 12- and 13-year old workers, and ex-employees who have been seriously injured at the plant. Discipline, he reported in the show, is enforced by armed guards. This appalled reportage made Daisey the go-to guy for anyone seeking to take a bite out of Apple.

    However, when a version of the show was broadcast on the US public radio programme This American Life, the China correspondent for another public radio show queried details. In a special edition of This American Life…Daisey admitted that key details (including the underage and wounded workers he met, not to mention the gun-toting security) had been invented – or, at the very least, imported from other journalistic sources. As a result, the Chicago Theatre has cancelled an April date, furious debates have erupted in the US media and theatre world, and both play and performer have become subject to unwelcome scrutiny.

    Daisey declined to be interviewed for this article. He has preferred to remain silent since speaking a few days ago, when he argued that he was creating a play rather than a report and that the rules of engagement are different. “The tools of theatre are not the same as the tools of journalism,” he said then. “It’s not journalism. It’s theatre.”

    Some seem broadly to accept the distinction. New York’s Public Theatre, which has hosted the show, said in an online statement: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist.” But even they admitted they had problems with the way Daisey had presented his work: “We wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

    This is the problem with shows like This American Life that think it is fashionably ironic and “edgy” to have it both ways—journalism, but not quite journalism. Now defenders of sweatshops and corporate globalization get to gloat, and the progress in consumer consciousness and (perhaps) material conditions for Chinese workers prompted by Daisey’s broadcast has been dealt a setback. This blurring of the line between journalism and non-journalism (theater, comic books, you name it) is leading to a dumbing down of our definition of journalism. The decline in standards can also be witnessed in the current hypertrophy of expository writing at the expense of old-fashioned reportage (a phenomenon particularly pronounced in the left media, unfortunately). We don’t believe in the myth of “objective journalism” (nothing human beings do is objective, least of all writing), but we do think there are certain standards for distance, accuracy and factual content which are necessary for writing to be journalism at all. By losing sight of this (in fact, embracing open contempt for the concept), Daisey and This American Life weren’t doing the Chinese workers any favors.

  4. Don’t gloat, Apple-boosters
    As sweatshop-boosters like the arrogant jerks at Forbes scramble to downplay or deny the oppression in Apple’s China factories, the Fair Labor Association has released a report on Foxconn finding “excessive overtime and problems with overtime compensation; several health and safety risks; and crucial communication gaps that have led to a widespread sense of unsafe working conditions among workers.” From FierceMobile IT April 2:

    The Fair Labor Association has found that Foxconn workers building products for Apple are working in violation of Chinese labor laws, and has secured a commitment from both companies to revise labor practices. The FLA investigated working conditions at three Foxconn factories at Apple’s request after criticism surfaced charging that Apple was using the equivalent of slave labor to build iPads and iPhones. Foxconn is Apple’s primary contractor for these devices.

    Under an agreement brokered by the FLA, Foxconn will cut workers’ allowed hours, but will raise their hourly pay so that they don’t suffer any loss of income. The FLA found that workers at Foxconn violated the organization’s standard of 60 hours per week and the Chinese legal limits of 40 hours per week with no more than 36 hours of overtime per month. The FLA also found that many workers were working 7 days per week without required rest time, and that many weren’t paid for unscheduled overtime…

    Apple has received significant criticism recently over the labor practices at its suppliers, and as a result the company affiliated with the FLA and published new supplier responsibilities for companies in Apple’s supply chain. “If implemented, these commitments will significantly improve the lives of more than 1.2 million Foxconn employees and set a new standard for Chinese factories,” said FLA President and CEO Auret van Heerden in a prepared statement.

    We are skeptical there will be any significant improvement, short of wildcat strikes hitting the Foxconn plants, or at least the credible threat thereof. Meanwhile… Your iPhone, brought to you by slave labor.

    1. Chinese labor laws?
      A cursory examination of most consumer products in the US will reveal that it is very hard to buy, for instance, children’s toys, that are not made in China. The argument has been recently made that Foxconn, while egregious by any civilized standards, is a marginally better place to work than the norm in the “People’s Republic”. It’s easy to raise a jaundiced eyebrow noting that the western hip-oisie (sp?) get up in arms only about their beloved(?) Apple consumer electronics while not really noticing that their refrigerators, tools, toys, furniture, even military industrial aerospace components are manufactured in China. Deng Xiaoping knew he could punch a hole in the bottom of the western labor market and he did.

      If Apple is in violation of “Chinese labor laws” perhaps it will bring awareness to the west about the actual lack of “Chinese labor laws”. But I doubt it. The struggle continues and is a far greater problem than someone’s iPhone.

      Note this isn’t directed against this blog but meant as a comment on problems inherent in the global supply chain. Industrial economic globalization was a bad idea for everyone except the international banks.

      1. Yeah, Chinese labor laws
        They exist. Tho they appear to be rather like the “free speech” provisions in the old Soviet constitution.

        True that the problem is way bigger than Apple, but that of course doesn’t let Apple off the hook… “Marginally better”? Given that labor standards are simply non-existent in China’s many “illegal factories,” that’s setting the bar pretty low…

        1. “free speech” Soviets … heh …
          Apple should be entirely on the hook, as it’s trendiness makes it specifically vulnerable or at least noticeable in the west. But there was a great thread on a tech site about buying a smart phone not manufactured in China. Probably not possible. I told a refrigerator warranty clerk I’d pay a premium for a factory on the eastern seaboard. Not possible. Not even in the 48 states.

          China is a capitalist slave state. It’s an interesting question that if an honest anonymous plebiscite could be taken of the Chinese whether the majority would find this as horrifying as some western liberals do.

          1. The “slave” part…
            I’d wager “yes,” bigtime. The concept of “capitalism” may have some popularity due to Mao’s excesses having given socialism a bad name. But there is also growing Mao-nostalgia in savage-capitalist China (as the Bo affair illustrates), and the de facto (and sometimes de jure) slavery faced by the Chinese peasantry in the old order helped fuel Mao’s revolution. China’s rulers are doubtless keenly aware of this, which helps explain why they are putting so much money into guns of late…

            1. not sure
              A real election would be an interesting, if impossible, experiment. If the distinction could be made between anti-capitalist as defined as anti-huge business exploitation and anti-capitalist defined as Maoist communes my guess is they’d side with small business and against anything that shifted their plot of land but for spending money. I’d prefer they were more FDR nostalgist than Mao but even over here the excesses of the 20th century reds continue to poison any attempt at a dialog left of the corporate centrists. And I’d point out – though redundant on this site – much of far left organizing in the US is dominated by weirdos, cranks, idiots and worse.

              1. Chinese workers want to be free
                Well, now you are asking a different question. What I took issue with is the notion that a “capitalist slave state” is viewed by the Chinese workers as less “horrifying” than it is by “Western liberals.” The strikes and local peasant uprisings across China in recent months and years are testament to growing discontent.

                And don’t be dissing weirdos, yo. Cranks and idiots—totally with you.