By Tom Hancock, AFP
DONGGUAN, China — Tens of thousands of employees at a Chinese factory making shoes for Nike, adidas and others returned to work Monday after one of the country’s biggest recent strikes ended, following what campaigners called typical government intimidation. The Communist Party fears an independent labor movement could threaten its grip on power, so it only allows one government-linked trade union.
But analysts say workers have been newly empowered by a labor shortage turning bargaining power in their favor, and the strike highlighted a wave of activism from older factory personnel nearing retirement. The dispute broke out at a facility run by Taiwanese firm Yue Yuen, which says it is the world’s largest branded footwear manufacturer, producing more than 300 million pairs of shoes last year. The plant in Dongguan, in the southern Chinese manufacturing heartland of Guangdong, is one of the world’s biggest shoe factories and has an estimated 45,000 workers, mostly women. Vast numbers refused to work for nearly two weeks over unpaid social security contributions. But after authorities ordered it to “rectify the situation” and it made small concessions, scores of strikers were detained by police, workers said, adding key demands remained unmet and they only returned because of intimidation. “Police have arrested workers in the workshops for not working, more than 60 were detained,” said one worker who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals. “At the moment the factory is controlled by police.” Six employees told AFP about four fifths of the staff had returned to work. A 45-year-old sanitation worker surnamed Li added: “The workers were not successful, the government is forcing us back to work.” ‘Your life’s work will be useless’ According to Chinese law, employers are obliged to make monthly payments into workers’ social security accounts, to help provide medical insurance and a pension. But analysts say manufacturers often shirk their responsibility. “If you don’t have social security, your life’s work will be useless when you return home,” said Li, who like nearly all the factory’s workers comes from a poor rural village, where he one day plans to return.