Chinese labor strike persists despite violence

Marketplace Public Radio, June 9, 2010

A workers' strike continues today at the KOK plant, an auto parts factory about 20 miles west of Shanghai that makes rubber gaskets and seals for carmakers such as Honda and Suzuki, as laborers across China continue to protest low pay and poor working conditions.

The strike today began Friday, when plant workers showed up and proceeded to do nothing. The sit-out continued until Monday, when police interaction bred violent beatings of strikers. Workers spoke to Marketplace reporter Scott Tong today after another sit-out day, saying they were unhappy about working conditions. "Line workers put in 12 hours a day," says KOK worker Li Wei, "and get 19 minutes to eat. Most workshops get up to 104 degrees in the summer."

Workers were also upset over Monday's violence, as some of the hundreds who took to the street outside of the factory were beaten by police or detained. "I was looking at my cell phone, and police thought I'd taken pictures of the clash," says one worker who wished to remain anonymous. "So they took me the police station for seven hours."

The KOK plant has declined to speak to Marketplace. Official word from local government is that the strike is done, negotiations are back to normal and strikers have gone back to work.

The global auto industry is watching these strikes closely. Consultant Bill Russo says more could interrupt production. "You're only as strong as your weakest link. If you're constrained in any one part, you can't assemble the whole car."

Labor activists say we have had increasing frequency of strikes in the last couple of weeks. Labor watcher Anita China at Australian National University thinks they're related. "News just travels in China," she says. "Workers hear about news from all sources. The publicity surrounding the strikes may be encouraging laborers as they learn of successful campaigns elsewhere online and through text messaging."

Censors are also pushing back. Last week, they directed Chinese media not to report major strikes.

China's shortage of skilled laborers

Worker protests have resulted in raises for factory employees at Honda and Foxconn, a tech company which produces iPads and iPhones for Apple. A labor shortage in China is empowering workers to negotiate better wages and treatment at their workplaces. This is especially true in the auto and technology sectors, where skilled employees are hard to replace. China's coastal regions are experiencing a particular labor shortage as many carmakers plants are based in that region, including Honda. Beyond Mainland China, the Yangtze River Delta has also been impacted with movement from discontented workers, according to the South China Morning Post.

On a broader level, worker strikes indicate an inevitable rise in the price of technical manufacturing in China.

Click here to view the original posting