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SCMP: Bargaining power

China Labour Bulletin contributed this article to the South China Morning Post. Copyright SCMP.

Genuinely representative unions could be the answer to mainland factory problems for workers - and bosses

Geoffrey Crothall
Jun 02, 2010

When faced with low wages and increased living costs, the workers at Honda's components factory in Foshan did what many other factory workers across the Pearl River Delta have done - go on strike to demand higher pay.

At Foxconn's massive factory complex in Shenzhen, however, workers making even less money did not strike. Rather, they hunkered down and worked for 12 hours a day, six days a week, to make up the shortfall. Many later walked off the job to look for better work elsewhere but, tragically, 10 young employees, feeling alone and desperate, jumped to their deaths from the roofs of their dormitories.

Why did workers at these two factories respond so differently to essentially the same problem?

One of the most obvious differences to note is the size of the factories concerned. Honda's automotive components factory in Foshan has just under 2,000 workers, while there are a reported 420,000 employed at Foxconn in Shenzhen. Clearly, it is much easier to organise a few thousand workers than a few hundred thousand. Indeed, the vast majority of the strikes on the mainland involve less than 3,000 workers.

But it is not just the sheer scale of Foxconn's plant in Shenzhen that stymies a collective response to workers' grievances. Foxconn actively discourages social interaction among its workers and strives to ensure that they focus on work and nothing but work throughout their long shift.

The only person they are allowed to talk to on the factory floor is their supervisor, and that conversation is always one way. As soon as they walk in the factory gate, recruits are told they have to obey their supervisors at all times and without question. Workers say the only permitted response to their line manager is to say "yes", nod in agreement, or grunt their assent.

And by the time they finish their 12-hour shift, all they want to do is get something to eat and go to sleep. Even if they did want to talk, they most probably share a dormitory with a dozen strangers who are just as exhausted and in no mood for conversation.

Moreover, management is now encouraging workers to spy on one another and report any individuals who are behaving strangely or who exhibit suicidal tendencies.

Under these circumstances, it would be virtually impossible for individual labour activists to organise their fellow workers in any kind of effective collective protest.

At Honda, by contrast, there is a much more fraternal atmosphere. Many of the employees were recruited from the same vocational school, they live away from the factory and have the time to relax and socialise with one another after work.

There is a trade union at Foxconn but it reportedly has only 27 full-time staff; that is just one official for every 15,555 employees. Given that trade unions are entitled by law to 2 per cent of a company's payroll, you would think the Foxconn union could afford to employ a few more officers to look after the welfare and interests of its members. But trade unions at Chinese enterprises are far more likely to look after the interests of management, who pays their wages, than the workers they are supposed to represent.

There is a union at the Honda factory in Foshan as well but workers dismissed it as "useless" and went about seeking a pay rise on their own.

They first organised a walkout on May 17, returned briefly and, when management responded with an unsatisfactory offer, walked out again four days later. The local government got involved and tried to broker negotiations but the workers refused to talk, preferring to simply make their demands and wait for a response from factory managers.

Workers at Honda say they want their own union branch. And, strange as it might seem, a genuinely representative and democratically elected union could be the answer for management at both Honda and Foxconn. Such a union at Foxconn could forcefully engage management over the one issue that nearly all employees complain about: a basic wage no higher than the local minimum wage that forces them to work 50 or 60 hours' overtime each month just to get by.

If the union could negotiate a basic wage of, say, 2,000 yuan (HK$2,280) per month, employees would not feel the intense pressure they currently feel to work all hours available; they would have more time to relax, socialise, make friends and maybe work thorough some of the personal and psychological issues they are facing. In short - they could get a life.

In Foshan, meanwhile, a properly functioning trade union would have been able to present the workers' demands for higher pay to management during scheduled, peaceful and equal negotiations, thereby forestalling the strike action that not only closed the components plant but eventually led to the closure of Honda's entire China operation.

Geoffrey Crothall is director of communications at China Labour Bulletin