Tempers at a key Honda component factory in Guangdong reached boiling point yesterday as workers and government-backed trade union staff clashed amid failure to persuade employees to return to work.

Analysts said the incident showed that the lack of independent trade unions, which can truly represent workers’ interests, could lead to escalating social conflict. Dozens of riot and uniformed police were standing by after the scuffles broke out.  

Some workers on the early shift were told yesterday to join a meeting to negotiate pay issues with Honda’s representatives in the presence of local Shishan town Federation of Trade Union staff and government officials, according to the website of mainland-based Caixin Media.

  The negotiations broke down when the workers refused to sign a document guaranteeing they would end the strike, said the workers, who considered the company’s offer too low. One of the section heads had threatened to sack his workers if they did not agree to sign, they said.  

Staff at the plant are demanding that their monthly pay be raised to between 1,700 yuan (HK$1,938) and 2,500 yuan a month, according to workers. Honda said last night some employees had returned to work at the plant in Foshan after the company offered to lift the starting salary from 1,544 yuan to 1,910 yuan, a 24 per cent rise, Xinhua reported.  

A scuffle broke out between workers and trade union staff after some union staff tried to video the workers. Some workers tried to snatch the video camera, workers said.   Another scuffle broke out in the afternoon in front of reporters and a curious crowd as about 70 workers were surrounded by 200 trade union representatives. Some workers claimed they were surrounded and beaten by the union staff. One female worker was pushed to the ground, a male worker was pulled by the hair, and the face of another scratched, workers said.  

Some workers cast doubt on the identities of the local trade union staff as they had never seen them before. “We pay union fees every month. You should represent us, so how come you’re beating us?” one worker shouted.  

Another worker shouted: “How come Chinese people are beating Chinese people? You’re not listening to the Chinese, but you’re listening to the Japanese?” A trade union leader replied through his loud hailer: “Your action has seriously damaged the factory’s production and operation.” He said workers could resign if they preferred not to work.  

The Shishan town trade union later confirmed it had sent representatives to the plant but denied beating the workers. “That’s absolutely impossible,” said one official, who declined to give his name.  

Independent trade unions are banned on the mainland, and collective bargaining is rare. All trade unions in the country are part of the Communist Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is the only official union and historically has been more closely aligned with management than workers. One 23-year-old employee said workers felt insulted by the actions of the trade union representatives. “Now it’s not a matter of pay rises, but upholding our dignity,” he said.  

In the afternoon, police cordoned off the roads to the factory and turned back busloads of workers who were on their way to start their afternoon shift. A staff member at Honda Auto Parts refused to comment on the incident when contacted by the South China Morning Post.  

Honda Auto Parts is based in Foshan’s industrial Nanhai district and employs about 1,900 staff making components for transmissions and engines used in Accord sedans, Civic hatchbacks and other models the Japanese firm manufactures in its joint ventures with Guangzhou Automobile Group and  Dongfeng Motor) , based in Wuhan, Hubei .  

The potentially embarrassing incident – one of the largest industrial actions at a joint venture company in recent years – broke as Premier Wen Jiabao met Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in Tokyo. The two sides endeavoured to strike a cordial note following a series of tense naval incidents. Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group, said the incident showed the official trade union had failed to represent the rights of mainland workers.  

“I think the problem is simply that workers don’t have any outlet for grievances. The trade union will not listen to the workers. They are out of touch, and they cannot represent their interests, so the workers are taking action themselves,” he said.  

“They are far more concerned with economic and social stability and the interests of the company than the interests of the workers they are supposed to be representing.”  

Source: www.scmp.com