The main objective of this material is to analyze what happened with the great wave of strikes that swept through China between 2014 and 2016, the current situation of the class struggle in that country, and the course followed by activists and independent trade unions who drove that wave. However, in the process of researching this I included data on the salary and employment situation as well as some characteristics of that working class.
Alejandro Iturbe – Brasil
It is necessary to clarify that this is a work carried out on the basis of reading specialized reports and journalistic news, without any possibility of contrasting this data (and the conclusions by the authors) with information or direct contacts. For that reason, it is necessary to take very carefully the hypotheses indicated in this material and see them as a step in a process of elaboration and monitoring that must be continued.
The Chinese proletariat
The first element is the colossal dimension of the Chinese working class and, within it, of the gigantic industrial proletariat. China has a population of just under 1.4 billion people. It was a country of essentially agrarian composition: even in 1980, only 20% of the population was urban. But the accelerated process of industrialization and urbanization of the last decades caused half of the population to live in cities in 2010. Today is slightly more. Within that framework, in 2013 the Statistics Department of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) estimated a “workforce of 937 million people” . Unemployment was estimated at 4.1% (just over 38 million people), which means a net balance close to 900 million.
That amount includes both employees and farmers who work the land. A 2015 report indicates that slightly more than 28% of the active population worked in primary activities (agriculture, livestock and fisheries, most of them self-employed). That is, just over 250 million people. Other material refers to “300 million farmers”. We will take the first figure, which is from official statistics. The same study cited initially reports 19.3% are “urban owners” (encompassing bourgeois and smallholders). That is, just under 174 million people.
In China, then, there are about 500 million employees. Within that total, the study reports that 29.3% of the total workforce works in “industry, construction and energy.” This means that we speak of an industrial proletariat of more than 260 million people (it includes private industry and national, provincial and municipal state companies with industrial, construction and energy production activities). That amount has even more impact if we consider that in 2008 the group of OECD countries had 131 million, and Brazil (with more recent data) around 20 million. The rest of the wage earners (between 230 and 240 million) belong to the different branches of the services sector (public and private “civil servants and employees”). We are talking about the largest working class and the largest industrial proletariat on the planet.
It is evident that a working class and an industrial proletariat of this size cannot be homogeneous and have deep inequalities in their characteristics of age, salary income and educational level, consumption trends, levels of organization and struggle, etc.
The largest sector of the industrial proletariat and service workers live and work in the large cities of the coastalareas. However there are also significant numbers of workers in the smaller inland cities – in some cases employed in provincial and municipal companies and in other cases employed in private industrial companies which have begun to move inland in the search for lower wages. As we will see, the mandatory minimum wage varies greatly according to the regions and inland areas have a proletariat that is more “docile” than the one in the big cities. It was the case of the Foxconn which moved part of its production to the interior after the suicide of several workers, and also Yantai Hangzhi International (led lamp factory). This relocation process has been encouraged by the government itself since 2000, but has accelerated since 2010.
Here it is necessary to briefly refer to the houkou (the internal passport required to move from the interior to the cities of the coast and which determines access to housing, health and education). In this sense, changes begin to be seen: “Before the workers did not have many options, except for migration. They did it out of necessity but were very discriminated against both in relation to housing, as well as to the health and education of their children […] Migration is still very large, but now many people prefer to stay in their place of origin, where factories pay less but have more social benefits, ”says Shueji Yao, a Chinese academic based in Britain. Because of the combination between provincial and municipal companies, and new private company filings, even in smaller inner cities there are thousands of industrial workers.
Elements of differentiation
A first element of differentiation to consider is that the mandatory minimum wage is differentiated not only according to the provinces but also in the cities and regions of a province. A range of 1,150 yuan* in Anhui Province ($ 166.40) to 2,120 in Beijing and 2,420 in Shanghai ($ 306.80 and $ 350.20, respectively).
A second element is that of the migration from the interior to the large cities of the coast and the houkou required for it. It is estimated that this process involved about 250 million people who, as we saw, suffer discrimination not only in the areas of housing, health and education but also in the quality of employment they get, since many municipalities privilege in their hiring for the “ Good jobs ”to young local residents, and“ stimulate ”for large companies to do the same.
In a study focused on five terminal plants of the automotive industry, it is reported:
They [migrant workers] feel discriminated against because they do the same job as other workers but receive less pay and less benefits, and because they are denied the same training and training opportunities, with lower chances of career advancement and of achieving job stability ”.
This same study points to another element of differentiation: the increasing use of workers from employment agencies agency, by several large companies (most of which are migrants with houkou); On the basis of other studies, the authors estimate 60 million Chinese workers in these contractual conditions. Specifically, in the automotive plants where the work is focused, the calculation was 50% of “regular” workers and 50% of workers per agency. The latter earned an average of 80% of the regular’s salary, had shorter-term employment contracts, and it was almost impossible for them to enter into an indefinite contract. In addition, they could not belong to the same official union organization as the “regulars” but to a union of the “agency workers”, with a much lower membership level. The study concludes that, by the level of association and collaboration, employment agencies were in fact subsidiaries of the companies that hired them.
Consider also the gender issue: women represent 50% of the Chinese workforce. In addition to its traditional presence in branches such as education, health and other services, its presence is mostly in industries that require precision work in small sizes, such as cell phone and computer assembly (for example, Foxconn). In a global consideration, there is an unfavorable “gender gap” calculated in 2018 at 0.673 (0 is the best score, 1 is the worst). This index measures the size of gender inequality in participation in the economy and the skilled labor world, in access to education, etc. China ranks 103rd out of 143 countries studied.
If we refer specifically to the “wage gap,” a 2012 study indicated that women earned on average 67.3% of men’s wages in cities, and 56% in rural areas. While women’s salaries have tended to increase in absolute values, they do so at a lower rate than men’s, and the gap is now worse than 20 years ago. The writer LijiaZang, focusing on stories of the world of work and feminine reality, said:
The capitalist reforms introduced by China in 1978, which brought enormous economic growth to the country, led to an expansion of inequality for women.
Another element to consider is the increasing employment (especially in the cities inland) of students of technical schools (subject to special labor regimes and with lower salaries). For example, 3% of Foxconn workers come from this system, and also the 19,000 workers of the new Yantai Hangzhi plant inside. In 2017, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education, “the total number of students working as interns is around eight million.”
The mandatory minimum wage (determined by the central government, the provincials and the municipal ones) is the clear reference of a “salary floor” for Chinese workers and workers. As we saw, that salary ranges between 1,150 yuan ($ 166.40) in some municipalities in Anhui Province, and 2,420 (350.20) in Shanghai. In many state-owned companies and large private companies, it is accompanied by other benefits (in money or in services), but for many workers in state-owned enterprises in the poorest provinces or in many medium or small factories, it is “the salary”,no additional or other benefits.
In nominal values, the minimum wage has been steadily increasing, since the different “five-year plans” implemented by the government have determined annual increases ranging between 6 and 10% (or more, in the 2011-2015 plan). In almost all cases, these were above inflation (1 or 2% per year, with peaks of 6% in 2008 and 2011; 3.5% in 2017; 2.5% in 2018, estimated at 3% for 2019). However, inflation was much higher in food, which represents 46% of the expenses of low-income urban families (with peaks of 10% in 2004, 13% in 2007, 14% in 2008 and 12% in 2011 ).
Therefore, in the last 15 years the nominal minimum wage has doubled but the real increase in the purchasing power of workers has been considerably lower, especially for those workers who only receive that income. In any case, both the minimum wage and the average salary of Chinese workers have been increasing almost constantly, measured in dollars. Some information speaks of a national average salary of $ 880. I think that, in reality, it is not about the average (sum of wages divided by total workers) but about an average (one sample per category, divided by the number of samples).
Let’s look at a more specific analysis. In a 2017 study, the average salary of urban workers of state-owned enterprises was $ 11,670 per year ($ 972.50 per month); that of the technological industries: 11,054.20 (921.18); industries with lower added value: 9,121, 20 (760.10); financial services: 8,208.60 (684.05); Other services: 7,183.80 (598.65). It is interesting to note that while the nominal salary of workers of state-owned enterprises had grown 10% over that of 2016, that of service workers had only grown 6.8%. Some sectors, such as port crane operators, can reach a monthly salary of $ 1,258 (with many extra hours).
This increase in the dollar value of the wages of Chinese workers has caused the country to lose “competitiveness” compared to other countries in Asia, and that some very low-tech industries (such as textiles, clothing or footwear) moved their investments to countries of lower wages. In a comparative analysis, today Chinese industrial work is more expensive than that of Bangladesh ($ 38), Pakistan (98), Vietnam (112) and even Malaysia (234). It has also meant that the average industrial wage of Chinese workers has exceeded that of countries such as Brazil, Mexico or Argentina.
Let us now return to the study on the five automotive terminals that we have already mentioned, carried out in the following plants: Guangzhou Toyota (GZ-TY), Shanghai General Motors (SH-GM), Shanghai Volkswagen (SH-VW), Tianjin Toyota (TJ- TY) and Yantai General Motors (YT-GM). Chinese law is about joint venture (50/50) between foreign companies and Chinese manufacturers. Foreign partners are responsible for technology and production, and Chinese administration and staff. They are modern factories, with between 3,000 and 5,000 workers. About 500 interviews were conducted in total (outside the factories), half to “regular” staff and half to agency staff. The net salary of these workers consists of two parts: the basic salary (which, on average, doubled the legal minimum but included the payment of overtime) and a series of fixed additional benefits. In total, regular workers received monthly wage from 3,648 yuan ($ 547) in Toyota to 6,144 ($ 921) in GM Yantai. Agency workers ranged from 2,851 ($ 428) in Toyota to 4,854 ($ 728) in GM-YT. To this must be added a bonus (which is not mandatory but defined by the company) that is related to the profits of the plant (can be paid annually or divided into installments): on average they ranged between 3 and 4 basic salaries per year (varies between companies and between regular and agency workers).
Workday and working conditions
To try to order the large number of types of working hours and working conditions, in 2007 the People’s Congress approved the Labor Contract Law, and in 2008 the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) was created, under the Council of State, as “responsible for the management of the workforce and labor relations”.
This law establishes three types of time systems for full-time workers:
- Standard working hours system. It is the most used, it establishes a base day of eight hours and a base week of 40 hours. On this basis, up to 2 extra hours per day and an additional day of work can be incorporated, and the minimum of one day of weekly rest must be guaranteed. Overtime must be paid at 150% on weekdays, 200% on the additional day, and 300% on holidays. This determines, in practice, that, even in factories with greater privileges (such as the aforementioned automakers), there is in realitya day of 10 hours and a week of 60 hours to achieve a better net salary. The law also determines mandatory internal breaks for food (1/2 hour) and between periods of 2 or 3 hours (10 minutes).
The only exception I found in my research was that of the main production center of Huawei in Shenzhen: a journalistic note based on a report from the company talks about 8-hour days and monthly salaries of 6,000 yuan ($ 900). On the contrary, Foxconn (whose giant main plant is also in Shenzen), was denounced for demanding 12-hour days and for subjecting many migrant workers to an “internal dormitory” system, where they sleep in overcrowded conditions, dirty, unhygienic and dilapidated accommodation. In 2010, there were explosions due to the accumulation of aluminum dust, with 4 dead and 77 injured. In this context, the total monthly salary did not reach $ 500 and such conditions caused about 20 workers to commit suicide. This generated an international scandal and an investigation by Apple which forced Foxconn to increase wages and improve working conditions a bit. At the same time Foxconn began to transfer some of its production lines to inner cities.
This Foxconn situation is reproduced in factories in the supply chain or manufacturers of products with lower added value (in many cases, overtime is not even paid as such).
In an interview conducted at the end of 2018, Pak Kin Wan, a member of the NGO Labor Service and Education Network (LESN), based in Hong Kong (which is dedicated to monitoring the working conditions of large factories in China), says that conditions have improved in multinationals but not in factories owned by Chinese bourgeois:
Especially in companies that are in the technology and electronic sector, actual working hours can easily reach 12 hours a day, six days a week. It is very hard […] One of the abuses that has had more echo in the media is unpaid overtime”.
It is no accident that the term “12.6” has become popular in China as a criterion and work system.
- Work hours system calculated exhaustively. It is a kind of “hour bank”, in which the hours worked are calculated during a period of time (month, quarter or year) and are averaged by day and week (not being able to exceed 8 hours a day and 40 hours weekly hours). This system eliminates overtime in practice (I could not find out which companies use it).
- Flexible working hours system. It is applied in transport, fishing, marine oil exploitation, etc. It implies periods of intensive and extended work, and then longer breaks (similar to that applied by Petrobras in the offshore sectors). The law states that “the employer must obtain authorization from the competent authorities before adopting the flexible system of working hours”.
- There is also a part-time work contract: no more than 4 hours a day and 24 hours a week average. Finally, as we saw, there is the work of the technical school student sector to which we have referred, but both the working day and the remuneration are not defined by this law but by provisions of the Ministry of Education.
The proletariat of state-owned industries
In an article published in 2015, I cited information that about 70 million workers were employed in the State and centralized state enterprises, and about 100 million in provincial and municipal companies. An important part of these workers are industrial workers in areas such as steel, mining (especially coal), civil and railway construction, oil, and petrochemicals. Some of these industrial activities (such as the production of steel, coal and petrochemicals) began to develop during the “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, through small productive units in the municipalities and provinces, of low productivity and of inferior quality. Then it went to medium units (also of low productivity), and finally to the largest and most efficient, but that first sector continued to exist and produce.
For more than a decade, the Chinese government has undertaken a restructuring plan for these industries (especially steel and coal), closing the lowest productivity plants and concentrating on the most efficient ones, and improving their technology. A part of this plan is in an accelerated process of implementation and involved the dismissal of 1,800,000 workers. The objective was to improve the overall productivity of these branches and the balance sheets of companies. The first information would indicate that the Chinese government is making progress on this path. Let’s take a closer look at some of those sectors.
- Iron and steel industry. China is today the world’s leading steel producer, with about 700 million tons; Six of the top ten steel companies in the world are in China. Production is divided amongst large steel mills in Anshang, Benxi, Beijing, Baotou, Taiyuan, Wuhan, Ma’anshan, Panzhihua, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin. Depending on internal needs and even some exports, there is overproduction. Within that framework, the Chinese government developed a plan to eliminate the production of 50 million tons of “unproductive” steel (about 7% of total production) to concentrate on the large plants of the coast. This meant the dismissal of 300,000 direct workers – about 15% of the total of about 2,000,000 steel workers.
- Coal. Coal is the main component of the Chinese energy matrix (68% in 2003, 62% in 2018). The different state coal companies are coordinated by a large central corporation. In 2004, production exceeded 2.2 billion tons and continued to increase significantly. Therefore, linked to the increase in steelmaking productivity and the closing of steel mills, the plan was to reduce coal production by 250 million tons, through the closure of thousands of mines and the dismissal of 1,500,000 workers. The whole of Chinese mining employed just under 1% of the workforce and has continued to expand in other areas outside coal. Even considering that reduction, we can calculate about 8,000,000 mining workers.
- Building. In this sector the majority are State companies, focused centrally on the construction of public works, such as the CSCEC (Chinese State Corporation for Engineering and Construction, the largest company in the sector), and infrastructure, such as the China Railway Construction Corporation and the China National Coal Industry Construction Corporation. There are also large private companies that predominate in the area of new residential buildings, such as the CCCC (China Communications Construction Co.) and those that operate in other areas, such as the CRG (China Railway Group) that have expanded from the railway sector to large infrastructure works (such as ports and airports) and project advice. A large part of these companies (state or private) also develop projects abroad.
- In the case of state-owned companies, it is necessary to consider other important sectors, such as oil production (concentrated in large companies such as the CNPC, CNOOC and SINOPEC); petrochemicals, which combine many small nitrogen fertilizer factories (which use a production technique developed in the country), with larger and more modern plants processing synthetic fibers, plastics and pharmaceutical products, in Beijing, Shanghai, Lanzhou, Shengli, Yueyang, Anqing and Canton.There is a growing trend towards joint venture companies with capital from Taiwan, Japan and other countries); the aluminum industry (centralized by the state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China Limited), which ranges from bauxite mining to the final production of products for construction, electricity, electronics, transportation and packaging; the naval industry, a branch in which China is the world’s leading producer of ships. Naval activity is centralized by the CSSC (China State Shipbuilding Corporation).
- A rapidly expanding public sector is that of passenger and freight rail transport, centralized by the China Railway Corporation, and that of subways in large cities (currently 27 cities in the country have this), with companies that depend on respective municipalities. This growth is supported by a solid railway industry of its own. Finally there are the port and transport workers in general, an activity that is centralized by the Ministry of Transportation of the People’s Republic of China, in which not only several State companies but also private companies and self-employed truck drivers participate. It is interesting to add that China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s leading maritime nation.
A more detailed study of the number of workers in each sector of the State is pending. As a global data, a study carried out between 2003 and 2004 estimated that there were “approximately 350,000 state-owned companies… that represent 28% of Chinese production compared to 75% at the end of the 1970s, but they employ 44% of workers in urban areas ”.
Some general considerations
We speak, then, of an immense working class and a gigantic industrial proletariat, divided by two broad lines. One is between workers of state-owned companies and those of private companies. The former reflect a “old” proletariat, in a double sense.
On the one hand, they maintain some conquests: better salaries, greater respect for labor laws, more job stability, and more possibilities for access to retirement. On the other hand, they have an average age almost 10 years higher than that of private sector workers. Therefore, the “job turnover rate” is 10%, in many cases to get better opportunities in other state-owned companies or as supervisors in private industry. The latter are a new proletariat, also in several ways: they arise from the industrial development of recent years, have lower wages, work longer hours, have less stability, and lower possibilities of access to retirement. In this case, the turnover rate is 22%.
Private sector workers are younger, especially in high tech industries. For example, in the case of the aforementioned automotive terminals, the average age of workers is 24 years (40 in the main western countries). Older employees are in state enterprises and hold supervisory positions. This profile of young workers is repeated in companies that manufacture cell phones and computers, which refuse to take employees over 30 years and even fire those who exceed that age if they do not hold supervisory positions, with legal coverage to do so “under the argument that this person does not contribute anything to the company […] Those under 30 have no commitments, are cheaper, more ‘exploitable’ and more profitable in the medium and long term ”so analyzes an article on this subject.
Another important element that emerges from the report on automakers is that all workers have at least 12 years of studies [completed high school] and many have two additional years of technical studies. Taken together, the Chinese working class has a growing educational level: in 2016, a national average illiteracy rate of 5.42% was estimated. Indices worsen, of course, in more isolated regions, such as Tibet, or in the rural economy, but decrease in the provinces and cities of the coast. In addition, in higher value-added industries, secondary education is a requirement to enter; There are currently about 90 million people with a university degree and many others with other types of tertiary education (teachers or professional training). The total gives us more than 13% of Chinese with higher education.
This corroborates what we noted in the 2015 article:
It is important to understand that an important part of the industrial working class has changed its character. It is no longer about the newly arrived generation of the countryside but about their children, already raised in big cities, with better educational levels and greater social aspirations.
An aspect that is going to be important both in the analysis of the wave of strikes and in the perspectives of the current situation
For their part, older workers with lower educational levels, who are not in state-owned companies or do not have access to supervisory positions in the private sector, are increasingly condemned to jobs with lower wages and worse conditions labor, such as those in the clothing, kitchen or jewelry industries. In the case of the automotive industry, in auto parts producers, whose salary and labor conditions are lower than those of the terminals.
Within the private industry, another great dividing line continues to be the houkou, which we have already analyzed.
Standard of living and consumption trends
It can be seen that the rise in real wages of Chinese workers (even at the expense of strenuous days) has been increasing their purchasing power. This has been expressed in an increase in consumption levels in absolute values, as indicated by the following table of consumption by family.
(Note: the amounts are given in renminbis without indication of its equivalent in dollars in each year.
However, they show the increase to which we have referred).
But this increase in absolute quantities is transformed into a curve of inverse dynamics when the consumption is compared as a percentage of7 the Chinese GDP of each year.
That is, the greater possibilities offered by the salary improvement are not reflected in a proportional increase in the consumption of the working class. On the one hand, this expresses a tendency to increase inequality in the distribution of wealth: “While in 1993, income from the labor factor represented 50% of GDP, in 2007 it was 43%”.
On the other hand, for some sectors, in reality there was no such increase in consumption possibilities because the nominal increase has been devoured by inflation in food, housing, health and, as we will see, help for old parents. In other cases where it does exist, workers choose to save that money and not spend it: the percentage of monthly income dedicated to saving went from 24% in 2004 to 30% in 2014. According to the work already mentioned, this reflects “a persistent lack of trust in the social security network ”, both in terms of sickness coverage, as well as dismissals or retirement.
This leads us to analyze the Chinese retirement system and its limited coverage. Currently, the official pension system only covers 40% of the population (contributors), with a majority participation of state employees. The coverage for the private sector is very weak. Therefore, workers in this sector “prefer to deprive themselves of assets that would improve their living conditions to have a higher level of tranquility and security.” The Chinese government has a plan to extend the coverage of the retirement system, but this is, for now, “music of the future”.
This majority trend is combined with another minority of sectors of the population that do increase their consumption of durable goods and, quite possibly, already include some higher and privileged layers of the working class. A 2012 report indicated that more than 300 million Chinese people belonged to the “middle class,” defined not with Marxist criteria but as “those families with an annual income between $ 10,000 and $ 60,000”.
In 2012, that number of people represented almost 24% of the country’s population and about 48% of the urban population (although not all were in the cities). We have seen that a part of the members of this income sector choose to consume less and save more. But another part does begin to turn to consumption, especially the youngest, in issues such as electronic products, health and beauty care, gyms and travel.
It was also expressed in an increase in car sales. In 2010, 18 million vehicles were sold in the country. The figure continued to grow until 2017 when it reached 29 million (of that total, about 90% were cars). In 2018, there was a decrease of 11.41% (as a result of the economic slowdown) and the sale fell to less than 26 million.
Even with this fall, China is today the world’s leading car market. But it is necessary to locate the real dimension of these figures: in the year of higher sales, that represented 22 cars sold per 1,000 inhabitants. This ratio is just above that of Brazil in 2012 (peak sales year of 18 per 1,000), while China is a country with a smaller number of vehicles. There is a sector that has varied its consumption habits, but the majority of the Chinese working class continues to travel by rail, subway, buses, motorcycles (in 2016, 17 million were sold) and even the traditional bicycle.
Then, a first factor that pushed the wave of strikes from previous years was summed up by Pak Kin Wan: “Many factory employees in China do not see that their life has a future beyond the assembly line” . A second factor that we have also referred to is the closure of less productive steel and coal companies.
Before analyzing the wave of strikes and conflicts, their claims and the role of the new independent unions in them, it is important to take a look at the official Chinese unions.
The only legal union organization in China is the National Federation of Chinese Trade Unions (ACTFU). The legislation prohibits the existence of other organizations. In 2006, it had 134 million members in 1,713,000 trade unions, 31 provincial federations, 10 national industrial unions (covering different giant companies) and two specific federations for employees of the PC and the central state apparatus. It is the largest trade union federation in the world. However, it covers only 27% of the Chinese working class. Its presence is greater in state enterprises than in the private sector.
Within private industrial companies, it acts more in joint ventures with imperialism than in those of Chinese bourgeois. For example, in the automotive terminals 64% of regular workers were affiliated to the union (in the case of agency workers, it dropped to 24%). In these companies, in addition to being responsible for the signing of the collective agreement, they act, on the one hand, as an “integral part of the management team of the Chinese partners” and, on the other, “their function is very similar to the unions of the state companies, whose major responsibilities involve organizing social activities, providing welfare services and addressing personal problems.” The first aspect (collusion with management) is also presented by Pak Kin Wan:
There is only one federation that is allowed, the ACFTU, and is controlled by the Government, which also controls its electoral processes, in which supervisors and executives win.
Its presence is much smaller (almost disappearing) in the factories exclusively owned by Chinese bourgeois like the Huawei (as we saw with better wage and labor conditions) or in the Foxconn. In the latter case, after the scandals that caused fires and suicides,
Guo Jun, director of the legal department of the National Federation of Trade Unions of China, made Foxconn, with multiple factories in the Asian giant, a target of his criticism of those companies that force their employees to work beyond 40 weekly hours marked by Chinese labor legislation.
The Taiwanese company responded to these criticisms:
Mr. Guo Jun has never come to any of our factories, making it difficult to convince anyone by throwing these conclusions […] Like other companies [the Foxconn] continually faces the desire of employees to work overtime to increase their income (wages).
The wave of strikes and conflicts
It is necessary to understand that, in addition to the prohibition of the organization of independent unions, strikes and collective protests, in practice they are also prohibited in China.
In case of protest, no law protects you from being fired or even arrested for altering ‘social harmony’. Therefore, many accept the conditions and do not dare to raise their voices (Pak Kin Wan).
That is, the strike and other forms of collective struggles appear as a last resort, high risk not only labor but also personal, only applicable in extreme cases.
Even in these conditions, since 2007 there has been a constant increase in the number of strikes and conflicts, a process that accelerated between 2014 and 2016 (coinciding with the first obvious signs of a brake or crisis in the Chinese economy). In those three years, according to a report by the China Labor Bulletin (https://clb.org.hk/) there were 6,700 strikes and protests in different parts of the country, an exponential growth on the start level.
What were the causes of these strikes and conflicts? In many cases in private companies it was due to delays in the payment of wages, payment of overtime according to the law, improvements in working conditions, and inclusion in the system of retirement and sickness coverage. Other conflicts in the private sector were the payment of compensation from companies that relocated to another area or even another country. While Chinese law provides for payment in these cases, many companies take advantage of the situation to avoid paying. The vast majority of these conflicts did not occur in large factories but in small and medium-sized factories (according to “Chinese figures” small and medium sized companies can employ up to 1,000 workers). An exception, in 2014, was the strike of the Yue Yuen Industrial, manufacturer of footwear, supplier of major global brands, in which 40,000 of the 200,000 workers of the different plants of this company went on strike for non-payment of social security fees.
Another source of strikes and conflicts was due to the restructuring and closure plansin the steel and coal mining sector which we have already analyzed. This is combined with the poor response to industrial accidents and poor work safety conditions, especially in coal mines.
An example, in 2016, was the conflict between the workers of the state-owned mining company Longmay who were protesting for several months at the delay in the payment of their salaries. The state then announced the laying off of 100,000 workers, 40% of the total workforce of the company.
Another example was in the state steel industry Angang Lianzong, located in the capital of Guandong Province, where hundreds of workers went on strike against a plan to reduce up to 50% of wages and increase the mandatory daily workday to 12 hours, in some sectors. A more complete picture of this wave of strikes can be found on a special page of the China Labor Bulletin.
In this conflict process, the role of official unions was of course very negative. In many cases by absence, in others by playing openly on the side of the employers or companies of the State. In the case of the Yue Yuen, a few days after it started, the Trade Union Federation and several ministries went into action to end the strike. The Social Security Department acknowledged that the company owed it money and the Yue Yuen responded, in clear agreement with the FSNC, that Yue Yuen:
… would pay the overdue social security fees if the workers paid the part of them “[sic] andthat” those who did not return to work three days after the communiqué would have their work contract cancelled for abandonment of work […] The strike ended with the reluctant acceptance of the agreement, but legal actions have been filed against the company, which was forced to pay about $ 31 million to the social security institution, with a loss of approximately $ 58 million, for the strike ”.
A rare exception was the case of the Walmart store branch in Changde (with 135 workers), which closed due to the company’s restructuring plan in the country. The striking thing is that the conflict was led by Huang Xingguo (leader of the FSNC local section in that store). The activity included pickets of more than 70 workers, despite the pressures of the local leaders of the PC to maintain the conflict within the framework of “legality”.
The independent trade union organization
As we have pointed out, the independent trade union organization is banned in China. The existence of permanent cores within the factories is clandestine and, therefore, presents great difficulties in accessing accurate information.
Yes, there are several NGOs that operate in the country, which try to “monitor” wage and labor conditions, support claims and give them some coverage. As Pak Kin Wan says, when referring to independent unions:
Some of its functions have been assumed by NGOs, which serve as support for workers to put them in contact with labor lawyers or directly to file complaints.
The vast majority of these NGOs are based in Hong Kong, are linked by the China Labor Bulletin publishing group, which, in turn, is linked to the ICFTU (now integrated in the ITUC) and to unions in the imperialist countries. That is, they are a kind of “union pole” outside companies and factories and, in certain cases, some of their members act in the style of the “external organizers” of US unions.
When a collective conflict erupts, “strikes are always led by commissions of elected workers in each mobilization, who are invariably dismissed and, in many cases, arrested for their action in the strike”.
Under these conditions, the existence of an independent union organization within factories or companies is almost impossible.
A very important sector of those who led and participated in the struggles of the private sector were the workers with houkou.
Since 2007, the undisputed vanguard is internal immigrants, when strikes were concentrated in Guangdong Province, southeast China. Since then, its economic situation has not had any significant change, but it has increased its firepower, mainly due to the experience acquired in these years and by social and demographic factors.
A similar conclusion was beginning to draw the study on the automotive industry, especially in the auto parts sector:
The new generation of temporary workers in the Chinese car industry has begun to show the ability and potential to act collectively and fight for positive changes.
The repression hardens and, at the same time, some concessions are given
Faced with this rising wave of conflicts and strikes, the Chinese government combined a hardening of repression against leaders and activists, which also extended to members of some of the NGOs that supported them or were more combative. This increase in repression became more evident since December 2015, when a national dismissal and detention operation was launched.
… After severe repression, in December 2015, independent labor NGOs have been severely affected and their workers have run out of organizational resources.
Currently, China Labor Bulletin reports that there are about 50 people under different forms of detention (among workers and members of NGOs), and also refers to missing activists.
The symbol of those who suffered repression is Liu Shaoming (61 years old), an activist for trade union and democratic rights, who had participated in the mobilization of Tiananmen Square (where he joined the disappeared Autonomous Federation of Workers) and helped organize the Yue Yuen strike and other movements. Liu has already been imprisoned for four years for “inciting the subversion of state power”.
This repression even became “preventive”. In May 2018 a group of workers from Shenzhen Jasic Technology Co (Jasic) began trying to organize a company union. They did this within the legal frameworks and requested to enter the local branch of the FNSC. They were confronted not only by the company but also by the government and the FSNC. The workers’ campaign gained support from NGOs, nearby factory workers, and students. The dismissals began and, as the movement continued, on July 27, 32 people were violently arrested, including Jasic workers, members of an NGO, and workers and students who had taken solidarity. Some are still detained, and others are missing.
This central policy was combined with some concessions from the government, such as the permanent salary increases foreseen in the five-year plans, and the plans to expand the social security and retirement system.
Also by companies, many of which granted the claim for which the conflict had started or sought decompression mechanisms for explosive situations, such as the Foxconn case. Preventively, some concessions were granted in large joint ventures with foreign companies.
As Pak Kin Wan put it:
Some have learned the lesson and have seen that they cannot abuse the rights of their employees because it takes a toll on their worldwide image. In their factories conditions are no longer as bad as in others.
The actual situation
Government policy seems to have been to prevent the wave of struggles from spreading and deepening in the large industrial cities of the coast and, especially, to the heavy battalions of private industry. This goal seems to have been achieved.
The 2018 CLB strike map refers to “1,701 incidents” (at the peak of the process it exceeded 2,000), of which 73.3% affected local private companies, 11.6% state companies, and only 2.9% to foreign companies or joint venture.
In addition to the aforementioned struggle of the workers of the Jasic, which had national repercussions, I want to refer to two others of great significance, which also occurred in 2018. The first was the crane tower operators of the large storage yards , a key piece in the process of production and transfer of goods, and of the construction industry. They get a good monthly salary out of pocket but with many extra hours in jobs of extreme tension and permanent demands. For example, in the most obsolete areas of technology, 130 accidents were reported in 2013 alone, with 15 dead and 12 injured.
In May 2018, they went on strike for higher wages and improvements in working conditions. The strike had a great impact on the press but did not attain its aims.
The strike also affected the self-employed sector: independent truck drivers, predominant in this type of transport, about 30 million of them.
The strike took place during a weekend in July centred on a line about 1,500 km long that connects the cities of Chengdu to the west, with Jinhua in the east, affecting at least 12 transport nodes. With some features similar to the strike of truck drivers in Brazil, it was launched through social networks in protest of the price of fuel, low freight payment, and the fact that an app that connects truckers with those who They need transportation not only adds a cost but pushes freight prices down. Therefore, their net income has been reduced significantly.
The repression and some concessions managed to curb the expansive dynamics of the wave of strikes and push it back a bit. But they failed to crush it and even other social sectors are incorporated.
The objective bases that generated it remain intact and now begin to combine with other elements. For example, the impact that the commercial war with the United States will have on the country and its economy. Or the deep contradictions that the “only child” policy (applied since 1979), although it has been repealed, exerts on the aging of the population and the size of the labor force.
The regime and the Chinese bourgeoisie are still sitting on the gunpowder barrel of the world’s largest working class and industrial proletariat.
As the 2015 article said:
The gigantic Chinese working class and its industrial proletariat are waking up and starting to act. If this process continues, it can acquire proportions never before seen in any country in the world and collide not only with the economic model of the country but also with the dictatorial regime controlled by the Communist Party.
The big problem for the regime and the bourgeoisie of China is that there are no mediation mechanisms in the country that allow them today to dampen or divert these possible shocks, or channel those aspirations. The only political organization is the CCP and there is no democratic freedom for the masses or the middle sectors. The official unions and their leaders are, in reality, state agencies and officials, who remain on the basis of fear and repression, hated by the base. And the bourgeoisie (and the new small bourgeoisie on which it can rely) are weak in size compared to the immense working class and the poor peasantry. That is, it would be a confrontation that can occur ‘raw’.
It is true that the Chinese regime and the bourgeoisie have been extremely pragmatic and could drive an ‘opening’. But so far they have not been willing to do so, and it may happen that, later, it is late (or overwhelmed by the ascent process). They have, of course, the alternative of trying repressive crushing as they did with the Tiananmen movement. They have very powerful tools for this: armed forces with 3,500,000 troops and police forces with 1,600,000, and with a powerful armament that is increasingly modernized, as well as an effective secret service. But ,in addition to the fact that 80% of the armed forces are conscripts and reservists (therefore, a base with many communicating vessels with the masses)…
But, the social reality of the country is today very different from that of the Tiananmen era: unlike 1989, it will have to face a young working class with colossal dimensions.
It is impossible to anticipate the ups and downs that this process will have nor its rhythms, but it is, to a large extent, inevitable.
In that way, the point of the union organization and the right to both the existence of independent unions and the realization of strikes as a first step in organizing and learning to fight, become fundamentally valuable slogans.
Translation: With the special help of Ashley Fataar
* Note: we will use the name yuan for the currency, although the renminbi is used internally,
of equivalent value but not convertible.
 CHEN, Vincent; CHAN, Anita; Regular and Agency Workers: Attitudes and Resistance in Chinese Auto Joint Ventures; Revista China Quarterly 224 (marzo, 2018) en: https://www.researchgate.
 See the note 8
 GILES, John; PARK, Albert; FANG Cai. How has Economic Restructuring Affected China’s
UrbanWorkers?, published de The China Quarterly, November de 2004. http://www.albertfpark.com/uploads/8/1/8/2/81828236/restructure.pdf
 http://www.asianews.it/noticias-es/Beijing,-cae-la-venta-de-autom%C3%B3viles-por-primera-vez-en-20-a%C3%B1os-45929.html y https://datosmacro.expansion.com/negocios/produccion-vehiculos/china
 To see a sample of what we say, see the report “China: las huelgas y protestas obreras continúan a pesar de la caída de la producción industrial” (2012) en: https://www.cetri.be/IMG/pdf/China_las_huelgas_y_protestas_obreras_continuan-1.pdf
 http://www.diarionorte.com/article/167386/china-huelga-de-camioneros-por-el-alto-preciode-los-combustibles- y